The Cowlitz County Coroner’s office confirmed Tuesday that a 31-year-old woman found dead in her Longview home in March had ingested kratom, an increasingly popular plant product.
However, Coroner Tim Davidson said “a perfect storm” of chemicals and physical ailments lead to Leah Nicole Waite’s death, and it’s impossible to say whether the plant product, often sold in head shops, “was the key factor that killed her.”
“There’s many elements here that came into play that led to the tragic events,” he said. “She went unconscious and basically went into respiratory failure, which created the brain injury that ultimately killed her.”
Waite was found dead in her bedroom in the Terry Lane home she shared with a male roommate on March 4. Empty packets of kratom were scattered around her body.
It was among a string of tragedies for her family this spring. Following Waite’s death, a custody battle for her son, 8-year-old Columbia Heights Elementary School third grader Noah Waite Brown, was renewed. Waite’s grandparents were granted temporary custody, but the boy’s father, Lucas William Brown, had visitation rights while the case was pending. Both Noah and Lucas Brown died after a car the elder Brown was driving slammed head-on into another car on Highway 30 last month. Lucas Brown was returning Noah from a weekend visit. Five others were injured in the crash.
The discovery of Leah Waite’s body followed by only a few days a late-night episode involving a young Kelso woman who had taken kratom, then stripped naked and swung a hammer at police while holding her infant.
Both situations prompted the Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office to issue a public warning about kratom, which touched off a fierce debate about the substance’s benefits and risks.
Kratom users say the Asian plant derivative is safe and they use it to relax, concentrate, manage chronic pain and ween themselves off opiates such as heroin and painkillers. The substance often is available in stores that sell marijuana pipes and other paraphernalia. It can be smoked but is more often taken as a capsule or dissolved in water, according to those who use it.
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Davidson said tests showed Waite had taken kratom and a prescription drug — Phenazapam — used to control seizures. Toxicology results showed no sign of illegal drugs, he said. Waite had been to drug rehab, and Davidson said toxicology reports showed no sign of illegal drugs in her system.
Leah Waite’s family said she learned about the substance from other recovering drug users, who told her it was legal and didn’t show up on drug tests.
Davidson said he couldn’t say definitively that kratom was not a factor in Waite’s death.
He said he knows of only one kratom death nationwide. If Kratom did play a role in Waite’s death, it would be Cowlitz County’s first from the substance, Davidson said.
He cautioned that even substances sold legally can have unexpected effects depending on the person who takes them.
“You’ve got to look at the bigger picture of what it’s going to do to your individual body,” Davidson said. “Everybody’s system is different.”
Daily News reporter Barbara Laboe contributed to this story.