Rolling Stone reports a 21-year old University of Pennsylvania student died after consuming a high-dose caffeine drink at overpriced fast food chain Panera Bread. Branded as “Charged Lemonade”, the “drink has 390 milligrams of caffeine, which is close to the amount of caffeine in three Red Bulls”.
Sarah Katz, a 21-year-old student at the University of Pennsylvania, died after drinking a Panera Charged Lemonade, “reasonably confident it was a traditional lemonade and/or electrolyte sports drink containing a reasonable amount of caffeine safe for her to drink,” according to a lawsuit filed last week by her parents, Michael and Jill Katz.https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/panera-lawsuit-charged-lemonade-tiktok-viral-warning-1234866179/
Like the Florida woman who died in 2021 after ingesting high-dose kratom extract from an unlabeled packet, Katz had a pre-existing heart condition that contributed to her death, and seemed to be unaware she was ingesting extremely high doses of the alkaloid.
Despite the existence of caffeine deaths (more examples here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here) and caffeine-related health problems including physical dependence, and despite the existence of people who get rich on the sale of coffee and caffeine products, and the existence of a coffee lobby that protects their interests, in part, by highlighting coffee’s benefits and downplaying its risks, no prohibitionist is calling for a coffee ban on the local, state, or federal level. Nobody is calling for criminalizing coffee drinkers. Coffee drinkers are not painted by prohibitionists as “fiendish addicts” who need their fix. Nobody is conflating coffee beans with higher-risk caffeine extract products. The FDA is not putting import alerts on coffee to seize it at the border. The FDA is not refusing to regulate coffee or caffeine products.
FDA is investigating the situation and believes that they will determine that this super energy drink is dangerous for consumption and begin to regulate energy drinks in the United Stateshttps://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/panera-lawsuit-charged-lemonade-tiktok-viral-warning-1234866179/
Not so with kratom. Since 2012, when current Natural Products Association president Daniel Fabricant was head of FDA’s Division of Dietary Supplements, the FDA’s answer was not to regulate the plant and its extract products, but to attempt to stop the import of kratom and to influence the DEA to criminalize all American kratom consumers by placing mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine on Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act. FDA continues to count “kratom-related deaths” — all deaths where mitragynine was found in the decedent’s blood, even if they died from a gunshot wound — as rationale for outlawing the plant. The NPA made statements in favor of kratom prohibition until 2020.
Why the disparate reactions? Because coffee is known to Western culture, and kratom is not. Because US culture has been infected with the fear-based and racist mentality of the drug war for a century. A new thing is not to be studied and understood, it’s to be feared and banned, as though the substance itself carries inherent magical powers and banning it will make it disappear.
Apparently it’s not possible for some Americans to admit that they are the problem and not traditional medicinal plants. It’s only possible for Americans to ingest so much of the alkaloids of those plants that they become toxic or fatal.
Botanical Racism, Fear of Unknown Plants, and the Drug War
Substances like coffee, tobacco, and alcohol have been given privilege over substances like marijuana, cocaine, and opium, which were associated in prohibitionist propaganda with Americans of Mexican, African, and Chinese descent. Bans of these substances have been and continue to be used as truncheons on the front lines of systemic racism.
While most kratom consumers and the prohibitionists trying to criminalize them are white, the racist aspect of the drug war is not absent, as prohibitionists who insist that kratom is only ever harmful are not only negating the experience of millions of American kratom consumers, but millions of people in Thailand and Malaysia who have been drinking kratom tea for at least centuries. Do prohibitionists think the people of Southeast Asia are superhuman to be able to survive centuries of kratom use with no observed deaths (also see: coca), or can we admit that there are safe and unsafe ways of consuming these substances?
This phenomenon is similar to what edible plant expert Alexis Nikole Nelson (who also goes by @alexisnikole on TikTok and @blackforager elsewhere) referred to as “botanical racism”. Her foraging videos and advanced knowledge of edible wild plants have attracted millions of followers. Always concerned with viewer safety, she tags each video with “Happy snacking! Don’t die!”
Another TikTok user called out Nelson for a video featuring black nightshade, consumed by billions of people worldwide. The TikTok user mistook the edible black nightshade for belladonna, or deadly nightshade. Nelson responded with a video explaining that the mistake has been embedded in the history of European botany, due in no small part to racist attitudes. As Nelson suggested in a separate video, in confusing belladonna with black nightshade, European botanists thought people of color were inferior humans capable of eating poisonous plants.
Just as European botanists assumed people of color could digest plants toxic to white people, prohibitionists, even if subconsciously, assume Southeast Asians have a special ability to tolerate kratom, or that South Americans have a special ability to tolerate coca leaf.
Botanist Sam Thayer made this point in another video about black nightshade:
When colonial European doctors encountered dark-skinned people in different parts of the world eating this plant that they thought was poisonous, they had a cognitive crisis. Rather than question their own beliefs about the plant, they took it as evidence that these people could eat plants that were poisonous to Europeans because they were closer to animals.
Whether or not individual prohibitionists are overtly racist, prohibition in and of itself is a racist law as it impacts people of color more often than white people, despite the greater number of white people who use illicit substances. Racism is indeed the foundation for the ignorant tradition of the drug war.
Despite the risks of caffeine ingestion, prohibitionists are not calling for a ban, because that would mean they and people they know would go to prison. That would be a clear attack on their culture and the safe use of caffeine that is embedded here.
Apparently, it is not possible for prohibitionists to admit there are safe and unsafe ways of consuming substances. If Americans are suffering from negative outcomes from traditionally consumed plants, perhaps it’s impossible with our huge national ego to admit that our own ignorance, rather than the plant, is causing these outcomes.