He kicked alcohol, became addicted to wellness drink that works like opioid, lawsuit says

Closeup of greenish capsules.
Kratom capsules are displayed in Albany, N.Y., in 2017.
(Mary Esch / Associated Press)

A Santa Monica beverage company is facing a class-action lawsuit alleging the primary ingredient in its Feel Free kava drink is an addictive opioid-like substance known as kratom.

Botanic Tonics, the manufacturer of Feel Free Wellness Tonic, markets and sells its product in California as a “safe, sober and healthy alternative to alcohol,” according to the lawsuit, which details the experiences of a recovering alcoholic who alleges he was deceived by the company’s advertisements.

Botanic Tonics attorney Brett Schuman told The Times that the suit lacks merit and that the company intends to vigorously defend the product in court.


“Botanic Tonics products are safe and manufactured, marketed, and distributed to the highest industry standards,” Schuman said in a statement.

Marketing materials say the product is no more habit-forming than sugar or caffeine. But attorney Shounak Dharap, who represents the plaintiff, says in the lawsuit that the Food and Drug Administration has noted that kratom “appears to have properties that expose people who consume kratom to the risks of addiction, abuse and dependence.” It’s also been listed by the Drug Enforcement Administration as a drug and chemical of concern.

Users are directed to “take Feel Free when you want to feel more social, need a clean boost of energy, or need to lock in and focus,” Dharap writes in the lawsuit. The suit alleges that Botanic Tonics misleadingly omits in its advertising that the drink’s primary ingredient is not kava — a plant from the South Pacific that is said to act as a moderate depressant — but kratom — “a highly addictive substance that activates the same opioid receptors as narcotics like morphine.”

Romulo Torres, the plaintiff named in the lawsuit, felt the effects of the tonic firsthand after working to attain long-lasting sobriety, according to the complaint.

In 2020, Torres began to receive targeted ads from Botanic Tonics on social media that marketed Feel Free without any mention of kratom or Feel Free’s potential side effects, he alleges.

Torres alleges that after purchasing the product from a 7-Eleven, another defendant in the class-action lawsuit, he developed a strong addiction to the product, drinking 10 Feel Free beverages per day and spending thousands per month on the drink.


Because of the “highly addictive substance,” Torres found he could no longer function without Feel Free and suffered severe withdrawal symptoms when he attempted to stop using the product, Dharap writes.

In April 2022, the Sonoma, Calif., resident was admitted to a hospital emergency room after presenting symptoms of alcohol poisoning despite his blood alcohol content being zero. Torres was again admitted to the hospital a few months later under the effects of Feel Free, “this time experiencing psychosis and delirium,” according to Dharap.

“All he had taken was Feel Free,” the lawsuit reads. Over the next several months, Torres would be admitted to the emergency room for symptoms associated with severe opioid use, including vomiting, lapses in consciousness, delirium and psychosis.

“His symptoms were attributed to the ingredients in Feel Free,” according to the lawsuit. Eventually, Torres would quit his job and soon find himself “back at ground zero in his recovery.”

Dharap said in an interview there is no regulation in place for a drink containing kratom.

There’s a warning or advisory on the label that recommends its use for those 18 and older, but there’s no requirement for one to be of age to buy it.

College students have been targeted by the company, according to the lawsuit, which says the company hired brand ambassadors to visit college libraries, dining halls and quads “to preach the benefits” of the Feel Free product. The company advertises Feel Free as the “official tonic” of several college athletic programs, including USC, Florida State University and the University of Texas.


Students have been told Feel Free will “fix all [their] stress,” the lawsuit states, noting a partnership with the three schools was so successful that Botanic Tonics planned to add 76 colleges to its partnership program by next year.

But the ad campaigns have also targeted users on social media who have a history of alcoholism and drug abuse and addiction, Dharap said.

“Botanic Tonics utilized social media algorithms to search out and specifically target these individuals,” the lawsuit alleges. Botanic Tonics posted more than a thousand advertisements on Instagram, repeatedly using the hashtag #alcoholalternative.

Dharap adds that the product, “through tragic irony,” has perpetuated the very addiction it seeks to avoid.

The Bay Area attorney points to social media users who have shared the detrimental side effects they‘ve experienced while using Feel Free products. The online comments, Reddit threads and examples of individuals who were subject to similar targeted advertisements are why Dharap believes a class-action lawsuit is justified.

“When you look at the comments on YouTube or various TikToks, you just see hundreds of folks who are saying similar, if not identical, things to what we are in the lawsuit,” Dharap said. “There are hundreds and hundreds of people out there who are similarly situated to Mr. Torres, and that is the reason behind bringing this as a class-action suit.”


One of the great benefits of doing so, according to Dharap, “especially in an area where there is no regulation like with kratom, is that class actions can cause systemic change; they can cause safety issues to be rectified — we’ve seen that in the tobacco cases, and we’ve seen that in other opioid cases.”