Travellers are drinking legal opioid potions” in Thailand

Kratom was legalised in Thailand in 2021, and the TikToker Tom Birchy is selling "potions" containing the drug. But is it dangerous?

If you’ve ever been on the wrong side of a hopeless TikTok rabbit hole, you might have seen the frantic videos by UKIP campaigner-turned-TikToker-and-drum-and-bass-promoter Tom Birchy. From Knock Out Labs”, his outpost in the town of Ao Nang in Thailand, the 25-year-old uses his massive social media reach (he posts 20 – 30 TikTok videos a day and has 406k followers on the app) to promote his weed shop, his festival and, well, himself. Mainly himself.

Birchy had a heart attack at the age of 22 from taking too much coke, but has since quit the packet: we know this because he posts every facet of his life online. One of the central themes of his channel is a product he sells, which he calls potions” – brightly coloured bottles (think homemade WKDs) that apparently contain a substance called kratom, which was legalised in Thailand in 2021, one year before they legalised weed. Now that laws surrounding kratom have been relaxed, it’s openly sold to tourists everywhere: on the side of the road, in dedicated shops, in the legal weed shops, even from a vending machine.

But what actually is this mysterious liquid? Here’s everything we know.

Basics first: what is kratom?

Kratom is the street name for mitragynine’, a naturally occurring, non-opium poppy opioid,” says Dr Caroline Copeland, a senior lecturer in pharmacology and toxicology at King’s College London. Ok, but what does that actually mean? So you have opiates and opioids,” she explains. Opioids is the description for all drugs that act on opioid receptors. You can get naturally occurring, semi-synthetic or fully synthetic opioids. But opiates only naturally occur from the opium poppy.” Kratom, then, is a naturally occurring opioid, but it’s not an opiate, because it derives from a tropical tree native to Southeast Asia instead of the poppy plant.

Tom Birchy’s potions” are made from brewing the leaves of this tropical tree in water, mixing the concoction with juice and bottling it up. He says consuming them provides a nice, uplifting effect on one’s mood”. Since kratom was legalised in Thailand, it has become popular with British tourists, who often review the product on social media. Although it is mentioned in the 2021 Global Drugs Survey, only 6.3 per cent of respondents from 22 countries said that they use it, making it one of the least popular recreational drugs globally. It’s unclear, however, how many people use it recreationally in the UK.

Got it. How strong is it?

Half a bottle to a bottle is energetic and light,” a 22-year-old, who has been travelling in Thailand for four weeks, tells us. If you consume more than that, the drug’s effects are increased significantly, getting him pretty fucked”.

Mitragynine [kratom] is about 13 times more active than morphine,” Dr Copeland says. So… pretty fucking strong. Does that mean you could get withdrawals if you stopped using it? If it’s stronger than morphine, which we know is already an incredibly potent opioid in terms of inducing dependence and tolerance, this is going to do that, but to a greater extent,” she says, adding that she would advise anyone struggling with dependency issues to engage with drug and mental health services.

Guessing you shouldn’t mix kratom with alcohol or other drugs, then?

If you’re using this substance, the plant or its derivatives in combination with things like benzos [valium or Xanax, for instance] or alcohol, you’re putting yourself in danger,” says John Corkery, an expert on drug-related deaths who has spent years working for the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. It can cause death because it depresses the central nervous system. The body slowly stops breathing and then shuts down.”

How common is it in the UK?

It’s not included in the Misuse of Drugs Act [1971] so it’s not a Class A, B or C drug,” Corkery says. It’s probably caught by the Psychoactive Substances Act [2016], but to definitively prove that you would have to have a court case and to my knowledge there hasn’t been one.” Dr Copeland confirms that it does fall under the Psychoactive Substances Act, which means it’s illegal to distribute but there are no legal implications for simply possessing it. If you’re found in possession of it [or any substance covered under the Psychoactive Substances Act] by the police, they are going to confiscate it,” she told me. But there would be no arrest, no court case, or conviction.

Makes sense. So what’s the overall verdict?

If you’re going to use kratom while you’re spending a month wearing no shoes and drinking out of buckets under fiery red sunsets in Southeast Asia, fair enough. But be careful, there are a lot of people taking this drug who have no idea what it is. Like any substance, you should respect it and be aware of the potential dangers. Be aware of the risks and how to mitigate them, which means starting low, going slow and not mixing it with anything else. You should also be aware that not all kratom drinks are made the same; one person’s brew could be a totally different strength to the next person’s. And there are reportedly some (not Tom Birch’s) outlets in Thailand that mix their kratom tea with other drugs, which is not legal there like the normal brews, or potions”, are. That’s something to bear in mind.

More like this

The best of THE FACE. Straight to your inbox. 

00:00 / 00:00