Medical examiner: 5 deaths tied to herb

Kent County

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Audrey Osborn had no way of knowing just how precious her wedding video would become.

“That’s the last video we have of him,” Osborn said as she viewed the DVD in the living room of her mom’s northeast Grand Rapids home.

Osborn’s brother, Eric Genautis, was a groomsman in her wedding last December. One week later, the fun-loving, kind-hearted information technology expert was dead.

Kent County’s medical examiner ruled the 26-year-old died from “acute Kratom toxicity,” an accidental overdose on a botanical herb from Southeast Asia.

Genautis’ death in December 2017 was the first tied to Kratom in Kent County. Since then, there’ve been four additional Kratom-related accidental overdose deaths in metro-Grand Rapids.

In at least two of the cases, the death certificates list Kratom as the only substance identified.

In two others, there were additional drugs identified as well, including fentanyl, heroin and oxycodone.

“People don’t know Kratom,” said Carol Genautis, Eric’s mom.

She wants to change that.

“I want to make people more aware of what Kratom is, and that it’s dangerous. Eric thought it was a safe drug because it’s legal.”

Genautis’ mom and sister want Michigan legislators to outlaw what they consider a deadly drug. 

“We want this Kratom to be illegal, off the market,” said Osborn.

The herb, sold as powder, extracts and capsules, is relatively inexpensive and easy to find online and in certain smoke and “head” shops.

Eric Genautis, who got hooked on opioids after he was injured in a car accident as a teen, struggled with addiction, anxiety and depression.

His mom thinks he believed Kratom was a safe alternative. It’s been touted nationwide as a way to wean off more powerful opioids. Others report using it to ease anxiety, enhance mood and relieve pain. 

“Ultimately, (Kratom) does have opioid like characteristics,” said Dr. Stephen Cohle, Kent County medical examiner.

Cohle said that makes it dangerous.

“It depresses breathing. If one takes a high dose over many minutes to hours, the breathing would gradually slow to the point where it stops.”

Cohle also notes that the Food and Drug Administration has not approved Kratom for any legitimate medical use.

“Until it’s been thoroughly tested, and the safety of it – if any – has been established, I don’t think it should be made available.”

In February, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration agency warned consumers not to use Mitragyna Speciosa,Kratom’s scientific name.

“FDA is concerned that Kratom, which affects the same opioid brain receptors as morphine, appears to have properties that expose users to the risk of addiction, abuse and dependence,” the agency wrote in a memo.

Federal officials say they’re aware of 44 deaths across the country tied to Kratom.

But there’s also grassroots support nationwide for Kratom, which has a history of inclusion in dietary supplements.

The American Kratom Association reports the botanical herb has helped millions of Americans “manage their overall health and well-being.”

The AKA says scientific studies have proven it’s virtually impossible to overdose on Kratom.

“There is not one death that the FDA has been able to show that was caused by Kratom,” wrote Pete Candland, Executive Director for AKA, in an email to Target 8.

“In fact, the FDA has abandoned using the word ‘caused’ altogether. Now they just say kratom ‘related’ or ‘associated’ deaths in order not to have to show causality.” 

The AKA says coroners are erroneously blaming deaths on Kratom simply because the substance was present.

But seven states have banned Kratom, and State Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Rledge, plans to introduce a bill to outlaw the botanical herb in Michigan unless or until the FDA determines a legitimate medical use for it.

Jones said Michigan State Police asked him to author the legislation outlawing the sale of Kratom.

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