Part 3: Kratom’s path across the US is marked by deception and secrets

The story was originally published by the Tampa Bay Times with support from our 2023 National Fellowship.

The kratom trail spanned thousands of miles before it ended inside Jeremy Franka’s Broward County home.

Two bags of the substance were near the 35-year-old’s lifeless body in a backpack in his bedroom. One held 120 capsules of O.P.M.S. Silver, a popular kratom product that has been linked to multiple overdose deaths in Florida.

The other bag, with the same distinctive three-leaf emblem, was empty.

The trail starts in the verdant fields of Indonesia, where farmers pluck leaves from native evergreen trees. Once in the United States, kratom zigzags across the farmlands of the Deep South, through the plains of southeastern Colorado, to the sprawling suburbs of Atlanta — cloaked in secrecy at every turn. It can make nearly a dozen stops, where it is blended, cooked and packaged before powdered and potent versions land in gas stations, convenience stores and smoke shops.

By the time these products reach Florida consumers like Franka, suppliers and manufacturers have taken elaborate measures to evade regulators and avoid detection, a Tampa Bay Times investigation has found.

Hundreds of businesses make up America’s kratom industry. The Times traced the steps along the trail, focusing on O.P.M.S., one of the country’s most popular names. It has roughly a dozen kratom products on the market, ranging from dried leaf powders to potent liquid shots.

Image of a shop

Before kratom products reach stores like this one on St. Petersburg’s Central Avenue, they have likely traveled thousands of miles, from the fields of Indonesia to manufacturing and packaging facilities in the U.S.


Reporters analyzed internal company documents, import data, court records, business filings and inspection reports to piece together a first-of-its-kind examination of kratom’s mysterious supply chain.

The psychoactive herb has grown in popularity over the past two decades with millions of people estimated to use it nationwide.

Kratom is legal to possess and consume in most states. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has recommended banning it and has stopped hundreds of shipments from entering the nation’s ports.

Amid the threat of regulatory oversight, kratom brands like O.P.M.S. depend on a labyrinth of corporations and limited liability companies that enable key supply chain sites to operate under the radar.

Two dozen entities and trade names connected to the O.P.M.S. brand have been created since 2012, according to corporate filings. The web of companies has the effect of blurring who is in charge and where products are made.

Executives behind the O.P.M.S. brand did not respond to repeated interview requests or detailed findings and questions sent in writing. The Times received five letters from attorneys representing entities and people tied to the O.P.M.S. brand that said their clients would not be commenting.

Daniel Delnero, an Atlanta-based attorney representing the company that holds O.P.M.S. trademarks, said all employees and contractors for the business are bound by confidentiality agreements.

The Times identified a supplier who billed a lab connected to O.P.M.S. for a kratom order during a time when no shipments of the herb officially entered the United States by cargo ship. The supplier illegally brought kratom into the country labeled as fertilizer.

He wasn’t the only one sneaking it in. After the FDA issued an alert that allowed inspectors to block kratom shipments, imports designating the substance as cargo dried up nationwide for years, a Times analysis of shipping data found, even as companies sold more and more.

Other importers have taken a different approach, records and interviews show. They’ve declared that kratom — tons of it — is not meant for human consumption, sidestepping the FDA, which regulates much of what we put into our bodies.

Once on land, employees and contractors guard the brand’s secrets — at times unwittingly.

The owners of a trucking company carrying kratom through Alabama, a state that bans possession of the substance, said they were informed that their cargo was vitamins, not something that could be seized if discovered.

Workers in Georgia said they cut off and destroyed shipping labels, burying any trace of stops along the kratom trail.