Alcohol Alternatives: Kava, Kratom, & Other Ancient Social Lubricants


Episode 189

JW Ross

Paul F. Austin welcomes JW Ross, founder & CEO of Botanic Tonics, to discuss his kava-kratom-based alcohol alternative, Feel Free.

JW Ross is a lifelong innovator and inventor of Botanic Tonic’s “Feel Free” plant-based tonic. He started his career as a Texas oilman who experienced immense corporate success that was tainted with alcohol addiction. After hitting rock bottom and going to rehab, JW purged alcohol from his life and completely pivoted his career. He went on life-changing trips to the South Pacific and Southeast Asia, where he discovered botanical medicines whose ingredients have been used for centuries socially and for wellness. After discovering these plants, JW dedicated his life to finding an herbal solution that would replace alcohol and still give him a euphoric lift with positive impact. He home-tested many concoctions, finally finding the perfect recipe, which turned into the Feel Free tonic recipe.

* Enjoy $40 off your order of Feel Free: Use the code 3WAVE at checkout.

Podcast Highlights

  • JW’s struggle with alcohol addiction, which led him on a search for alternative social lubricants.
  • How alcohol is an “outlier” among other ancient forms of social lubricants around the world.
  • Feel Free vs. alcohol.
  • Feel Free vs. cannabis.
  • Understanding kratom: types, processing, and effects.
  • Are kava and kratom addictive?
  • JW’s current research and legislative efforts with kava and kratom.
  • Kava tolerance, and JW’s thoughts on alcohol- vs. kava-drinking societies.
  • JW on sourcing ingredients and his vision for Botanic Tonics.

This episode is sponsored by Beckley Retreats, a leading holistic wellbeing company that offers transformative self-development programs by leveraging the science-backed power of psychedelics in concert with supportive therapeutic modalities. As a trusted partner of Third Wave, we strongly recommend the upcoming retreats for Beckley in Jamaica, as well as many other locations. Head to to book your transformational psilocybin program today.


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Podcast Transcript

0:00:00.2 Paul Austin: Welcome back to the Psychedelic Podcast by Third Wave. Today I am speaking with JW Ross, the founder of Botanic Tonics, and the inventor of Feel Free.

0:00:10.7 JW Ross: You know, you've got this wedge of society which everyone knows about like me, that are basically alcoholics and can't dream because crazy things happen. But you've got this much larger wedge of people that, they're not crashing cars or losing jobs or any of that, but they know internally that there's something not quite balanced in their life. And they're looking now for choices. I don't think in the past we really had many choices. The good news is that now we're starting to have natural choices that you can use. And for a lot of people they're finding that some of these other choices are better.


0:00:54.5 Paul Austin: Welcome to the Psychedelic Podcast by Third Wave, audio mycelium, connecting you to the luminaries and thought leaders of the psychedelic renaissance. We bring you illuminating conversations with scientists, therapists, entrepreneurs, coaches, doctors, and shamanic practitioners, exploring how we can best use psychedelic medicine to accelerate personal healing, peak performance and collective transformation.


0:01:29.5 Paul Austin: Hey listeners, I'm so excited to have JW Ross on the podcast today. JW is the inventor of a tonic called Feel Free, which mixes kava and kratom into an interesting two-ounce bottle. There's a little bit of pineapple juice, a little bit of stevia and drinking that creates a sort of euphoric experience. Half a bottle is great for productivity, a full bottle is great as a social lubricant. We went into JW story about how he was previously an alcoholic, went through rehab, has been sober for many, many years now, but still wanted to have something that helped him with social lubrication. And after many years of studying and experimenting, he landed on this mixture 10 parts kava to one part kratom that allows for a really sort of bubbly, euphoric and open experience. Hence the name Feel Free.

0:02:25.5 Paul Austin: So, in today's podcast we go deep into kratom, we go deep into kava, we go deep into JW's path as an inventor. We talk about other social lubricants and what makes a social lubricant great. We talk about all the downsides of alcohol. This is a really deep dive into a couple plant medicines that we really haven't talked much at all about on the podcast. We also address the more addictive sort of nature of kratom, and why a lot of that addiction comes from the extract and not the whole plant. And of course, there is whole plant in Feel Free. Anyway, I really hope you enjoy the conversation, it is a really good one. And if you're interested in Feel Free, be sure to check out their website, Okay, before we dive into today's episode, a word from our sponsors.

0:03:13.2 Paul Austin: Hey listeners, we're excited to announce Psyched Wellness as our newest podcast sponsor. Their product, Calm, has been developed by leading scientists and wellness professionals and is an over-the-counter Amanita muscaria extract that may help to reduce stress, ease muscular tension and promote restorative sleep. For the first time in history, they've managed to successfully distill the restorative and healing elements from the Amanita muscaria mushroom. Their lab tested Amanita muscaria extract is detoxified and safe for consumption. If you'd like to be one of the first to try this breakthrough product, you can go to, that's and use the code THIRDWAVE23 to get 15% off when ordering. That's shop.psyched, P-S-Y-C-H-E-D, and use the code THIRDWAVE23 to get 15% off when ordering.

0:04:25.1 Paul Austin: Beckley Retreats received an award for best psychedelic retreat of the Year in 2022, co-founded by Amanda Feilding, the queen of the psychedelic renaissance. This retreat builds on decades of research from the renowned Beckley Foundation, a think tank, and NGO that Feilding founded, Feilding has collaborated with leading scientists and institutions around the world for over 20 years on a wide range of scientific projects investigating the effects of psychedelic substances on brain function, subjective experience and clinical symptoms. The retreats are one of the most comprehensive psilocybin experiences in the world. Run by trusted and experienced facilitators, it's a six-day retreat in Jamaica with an 11-week virtual preparation and integration program where modern psychedelic science meets ancient wisdom.

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Without further ado, here's my conversation with JW Ross.

0:06:04.1 Paul Austin: Hey, listeners, welcome back to the Psychedelic Podcast. I'm your host, Paul Austin. Today we have JW Ross, the founder of Feel Free, a plant-based herbal supplement that has come to my attention over the last year and is something that I've been consistently working with now over the past few months. So, JW I first, I just wanna welcome you to the podcast. Thank you so much for joining us.

0:06:24.2 JW Ross: Thanks for having me on.

0:06:25.5 Paul Austin: So, to help the audience orient, and this is how I open most of these conversations. Your background is on oil and gas, you're an innovator, you're an entrepreneur, and you've landed on a supplement that is incredibly unique. There's really nothing like it out there. And so just to help the audience understand how Feel Free came to be, I'd love for you to just share a little bit about your story, about what took you from oil and gas into wellness, into herbal supplements. Just help us understand your path and your journey a little bit.

0:07:06.8 JW Ross: Okay. So as I say, a long, strange trip, I started out in oil and gas in the early '80s in Texas, my mentors that I admired or followed were what you typically would see, the Texas wall caterer, work very hard but play even harder. Lots of drugs and alcohol. And I started that at a very young age, started basically in the very bottom and worked my way up. And by the time I was in my late 20s, already had success 100 times more than I ever dreamed of having to the point, by the time I was in my early 30s, all the houses, the cars, planes, the boats, and all the stuff that comes with that.

0:08:09.6 Paul Austin: Everything, you got the whole kit and caboodle. Wow.

0:08:16.4 JW Ross: Yeah. But as my success ramped up, so did my substance use. Some of the drugs started trailing off, very early, I did pretty much everything. I did quite a bit of experimentation with acid and mushrooms and they got into quite a bit of cocaine along with the alcohol. And I'd say my drug of choice wound up being alcohol because that's what a primary thing everyone around me was using. But I got to the point where the alcohol was not working for me anymore. When I say not working, it was still working but there was a lot of negativity along with it.

0:09:14.6 JW Ross: I've always had a problem with social anxiety, just didn't feel comfortable in my own skin or communicating with other people, and the very first time I tried the alcohol, which I was probably 14-15 years old, it was love at first sight. I went from feeling out of sync to a life of the party, and I felt that way for quite some time. But as my use continued to accelerate, I started having a lot of other issues. All this came to a head with an intervention, crash, and inpatient treatment for 90 days in Atlanta, Georgia. Interesting experience in itself because it was a treatment center that specializes in commercial airplane pilots and doctors, so.

0:10:22.3 Paul Austin: Which you were neither.

0:10:24.9 JW Ross: Which I was neither, but it was probably, for me, it was the right setting to be in because these were people that also had achieved everything that they were... They were in control of everything else in their life other than their substance abuse. And it worked for me. I came out of there and that was 13 years ago. And haven't had a drink since. But I came out and I was... They use the term dry drunk, I think that was what I was. I had a much better life but I wasn't happy. I still had the same social anxiety and all that, and I pretty much just isolated myself, threw myself into new work projects. I've gotten out of oil and gas. I kinda took to heart the think about, you need to get new places, people, things, all that kind of stuff. And I did that.

0:11:28.5 JW Ross: And I realized that if I didn't find something that addressed my issues like alcohol had, I was gonna go back to drinking alcohol because I couldn't live long-term like that without it. I just didn't feel comfortable. So I started trying everything that's in the market, I tried everything legal I could get my hands on. None of that really seemed to do much of anything, and then I tried again everything illegal, and most of that did too much or it didn't do what I was looking for. I was looking for something that I could use on a daily basis, I could go work out, go to work, didn't have to worry about driving a car. I wasn't looking for something that just would take you off into another world. And I couldn't find it.

0:12:39.4 JW Ross: So I started doing a lot of research on plants from around the world, substances that people have been using for thousands of years for social lubrication. I had remembered a trip that I took to Vanuatu decades ago, just guys party trip and kava ceremony there. And I actually had started a Fintech company, Financial Technology company in Southeast Asia. And while I was there, I was introduced to some other plants but none of these things by themselves, again, did what I was looking for. So, I got the idea of trying to start mixing some of this stuff together, which some of it had never been mixed together before. So I set up a informal lab in my house and just started ordering in samples or going and collecting samples, bootlegging them in from different places around the world and just kind of trial and error, different percentages, different strains, different plants.

0:13:51.2 JW Ross: Using myself mainly as a guinea pig, but also friends and family. And I spent about two years doing that and finally found what, for me, gave me that feeling that I had when I first drank alcohol. Even better, it wasn't inebriating and I didn't need near as much of it and I could go work out and go to work. And it didn't seem to have any of the downsides. So I really wasn't doing it to commercialize it. I was doing it just for my own use. But in the process of doing all this, the people that I shared it with said, "Man, you need to sell this stuff." So I've got often to consumer package goods. And that was in May of 2020 that we launched, formerly launched Feel Free. And it's been a crazy ride ever since.

0:14:53.0 Paul Austin: Well, because it's also coming in at a time where, I mean, you've probably heard the phrase Cali sober, right? And even the rise of general sobriety, the sort of pushback against alcohol, the sort of looking at what are alternatives and things that, like you said, facilitate a similar way of being, but without a lot of the liver toxicity, without a hangover the next day, without... Like alcohol in some ways is a very rudimentary drug. And so to...

0:15:26.3 JW Ross: It is. It's also... Alcohol is an outlier. Alcohol is so deeply, entrenched into our society, that it's like it's with food, it's with celebrations, it is really deeply ingrained. But when you look at it versus what other civilizations have used around the world, for thousands of years, it is an outlier. And there's about five of them that are major ones that people have used for social lubrication around the world. All of them are used pretty much in their natural form. They're made like into a tea or they're chewed, the leaves are chewed or whatever. But alcohol is a highly processed food. Sometimes I'll run into somebody that's a health guru and they're telling me how clean they eat and how they work out and how they cold plunge, all this stuff, and they're sitting with a beer in front of them or drink. And I'm like, that's one of the most highly processed things that you could put in your body.

0:16:38.2 JW Ross: It's loaded with sugar, but they don't seem, because it's so entrenched in our society, they don't seem to connect the dots between the two. And the other thing is that it's... I've not really heard anybody talk about this, alcohol is a disinfectant. I mean, it's used to kill germs or bacteria. Why would you put that in your body? Because when it... It's indiscriminate, when it goes in your body, it kills, especially in larger quantities, it really destroys your system. And I just don't think that people, because it's so entrenched, they just don't think about it that way. But that's changing. And what I see is, especially now doing this, 'cause I get thousands and thousands of people reaching out to me, is that you've got this wedge of society which everyone knows about like me that are basically alcoholics and can't drink because crazy things happen or horrible things happen.

0:17:54.5 JW Ross: But you've got this much larger wedge of people that, they're not crashing cars or losing jobs or any of that, but they know internally that there's something not quite balanced in their life. They're not quite feeling the way that they used to when they first started drinking it. And they're, "God, I wish I hadn't said that last night." Or those types of things, what I call minor instance, but... And they're looking now for choices. I don't think in the past we really had many choices. The good news is that now we're starting to have natural choices that you can use and for a lot of people they're finding that some of these other choices are better than considering the alcohol.

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0:20:36.8 Paul Austin: So a couple thoughts there on the disinfectant note, there's an anecdote or a story, or kind of a... Not even an anecdote, but just in medieval Europe, the water was so dirty that they would often have to make it into beer, in order to actually drink the liquids. Because like you said, the turning it into beer, going through that process of heating it up and boiling it and all of that actually made it somewhat usable. And we're now at a place and a point where that's no longer necessary. And so quickly things have shifted where like you said, there's so many... We live in a globalized society. There's so much knowledge coming to the forefront. Even what you've innovated and created with Feel Free, it's not one or the other. It's not kava or kratom, it's both combined which is a very unique innovation in that way. And I think that's sort of... So my next question is two parts. One, you mentioned those five plants. And I'd love for you to just mention what those five plants are. I have a sense of what they are, but I'd love to hear them from you and then...

0:21:43.7 JW Ross: There's five what I call social lubricators, kind of mass scale. So you have kava, which is through the Pacific Islands, you have kratom, which is in Southeast Asia, you have kanna in South Africa, you have coca in Central and South America and then you have alcohol, which started in China and kind of the Middle East. Those are the main... There's other ones too, but those are really the main ones. And like I said, of all those, as far as how the natives use them, they don't process them. Other than alcohol is a processed food.

0:22:28.9 Paul Austin: Khat is another one that's come to mind, I know that that was used I think in the Middle East and still is. I think betel nut is another one but that creates a lot of discoloration. So why then kava-kratom? And within that, maybe tell us a little bit about... A little bit more about those two plants specifically, kinda... Yeah. What is kava? What is kratom? And the combination of the two, why is that a potent combination?

0:22:57.5 JW Ross: Kava is... I think on a standalone basis, kava is the best natural social lubricator there is. It has incredible anti-anxiety properties to it. And, having now... I spend quite a bit of time in the Pacific Island, specifically Vanuatu. I actually have a place there now. And learning more and actually doing a lot more green kava ceremonies the way it's traditionally been done, and then listening to people that live in that area. Even at the point of... I was talking to a French businessman that has interests scattered throughout different islands. He said, "It's very easy to see the difference in the violence and crime rate in the kava centric islands versus the alcohol islands." And the kava islands, he said, there's no theft, there's no violence, there's no... You don't see hardly any of that.

0:24:09.5 JW Ross: He says, "In the alcohol islands, it's just the opposite," because kava, which is the root of a pepper plant, it socially lubricates you. But it does that by quieting you down and making you more quiet internally. And then you open up and listen to the people around you and you have better engaged conversations with them because you're really engaging with them. Alcohol is a great social lubricator too, but it does it in an opposite way, it amplifies you. There's liquid courage all that. It makes you aggressive. And when you get a room of people together that they're all doing that, they're trying to get... You've heard how loud it gets in a bar 'cause everybody's talking louder and louder and louder and they're becoming more animated. And it's just a... It's two completely different ways of getting to the same place.

0:25:15.4 JW Ross: And I would argue that the first is much better. I mean, I've been to many kava ceremonies now with large groups of people, a lot of them the first time they've ever tried it. And it's just a completely different experience. It's a wonderful experience, but it's just people are not aggressive. They're not loud. They're calm, they're having engaged conversations. That said, it's almost like it's too good. It puts you in such a calm state. For me, it was a little bit too calm. So I was looking for something that kind of offset that. So my time in Southeast Asia, I was introduced to kratom. And kratom is the leaf of a tree in the coffee family, again been used for thousands of years. They make a tea out of it. If you go out into rural Southeast Asia, you'll find these little shacks along the road and you'll get these little bags with a straw in it.

0:26:24.8 JW Ross: And it's like their Starbucks and the workers on their way to the fields will grab one of those and shoot it down. And it's a productivity enhancer endurance substance and very very effective at doing that. So when you mix the two together, you get this dance between the two of between being socially calm and productivity enhancement. And to me it's like having the right amount of alcohol. That's the other thing about alcohol is it's very hard to dose it. It's hard because it's fast acting and it's short life. You keep wanting another and another and another and all of a sudden, whoa, now I've gone over the edge. I've got too much. And you can't back up. So the great thing about these plants is you don't really need to just keep doing it and doing it and doing it. They last for quite some time. So that's how I put it together.

0:27:41.5 Paul Austin: And I have so many questions here. The first one that's coming up is around cannabis. So you had mentioned that you had done a lot of experimentation and exploration. I much prefer this to cannabis, and I say this in terms of the Feel Free 'cause we had a chance to take one right before we went live. Why is this superior to something like cannabis? Maybe from your own personal experience or just what you noticed.

0:28:07.7 JW Ross: I'm 60 years old now. I started smoking weed when I was, again, probably 15, 16 years old. And what I've seen is weed has changed a lot over time. The weed that I smoked when I was in my teens and early 20s pales in comparison to what we have today as far as the strength of it, the THC content. I would argue that that weed was... That actually was... I enjoyed that. The issue I have with the weed today is that it is so strong that it makes me kind of paranoid feeling. And I don't like that feeling. I don't... I want to be comfortable. I don't want to be on edge. It's just, to me, it's not a feeling that I... And I've tried some D8 over the last six months or so, that to me reminds me more of what I remember the experience being decades ago. And even some of my friends that are what I would call very serious cannabis users for decades, they even say the same thing. That they feel like that some of the strains and stuff that have been evolved to today, they're just too strong.

0:29:43.0 Paul Austin: Yeah. The hydroponic 30% THC, it's like we kind of went... They went for maximal effect. It even gets back into the difference between beer and wine and gin and vodka and tequila, right?

0:30:00.6 JW Ross: Yeah. It's all kind of... To me it's about a marketing one-up. Everybody thinks, well, if I can get a little bit stronger, I can get more market share. And it really is horrible. I've watched... Look what happened with coca leaves. Coca leaves are wonderful. I would argue that coca leaves would've been bigger than caffeine, than coffee if they hadn't taken it and made it into cocaine, done the extraction. It's a wonderful plant, but we take it and turn it into something else and take just two out of 50 alkaloids that are out of it, extract it with solvents, usually gasoline, and we turn it into something that's not what Mother Nature intended it to be. And unfortunately they're doing the same thing with kratom And using the exact same process.

0:31:04.9 JW Ross: Kratom has about 50-some alkaloids just like coca leaves do. And they are creating high concentration extracts using solvents or CO2. And again, you're able to get thousands of times more of it in your system than you would if it was in the leaf form. And problems happen, just like problems happen. Usually people that are consuming cocaine on a longer basis, it doesn't end very well. It's not a great experience by the end of their journey with it. And it's the same thing with kratom and I hate to see that because, again, it's something that's been used for thousands of years by millions of people with not any issues. And then we take it and basically screw it up. That's why it's very important for us, we use it in its natural form. We don't extract it.

0:32:17.7 Paul Austin: Well, it's interesting that you mentioned that. I was in New York a few months ago and this was just when I was starting to work with Feel Free a little bit. I was gonna speak at a conference. I had to moderate a panel. And so before I went to the conference, I stopped off, this was in Bushwick. I stopped off at a local head shop to see if they had Feel Free. And unfortunately Feel Free is a lot more common on the West coast than the East coast, although I think they're making some significant inroads at this point in time. And so they only had this kratom extract thing that tasted horrendous. I just kind of chugged it back. It was fine, but it felt very imbalanced and a little too heady even. And what I love about the Feel Free is, like you said, using the whole plant allows for all of the alkaloids and the supporting alkaloids then create a much more embodied, sort of holistic feeling to that overall experience.

0:33:19.8 JW Ross: Yeah. I guess the easiest way in my mind to describe it, these extracts are about getting high. It's just about blowing your head off. That's not really what I designed Feel Free to do. I mean, you can, if you do enough of it. I mean, you can get a buzz off of it, but that's not really what I use it for, nor most people use it for. It's more about a caffeine and alcohol replacement. And I know those sound like two totally different things, but most people that use it use it for both. They'll use it earlier in the day for productivity enhancement and later in the day, weekends for social lubrication. And it's because you have these two different plants doing two different things.

0:34:13.8 Paul Austin: So let's talk a little bit about that. What's the ratio of kava to kratom and what type of kratom do you use in Feel Free?

0:34:23.9 JW Ross: So the ratio is 10:1 kava over kratom. And the reason for that...

0:34:30.8 Paul Austin: Why'd you choose that ratio? How did that ratio sort of come about?

0:34:34.0 JW Ross: Oh man, again, I spent two years...

0:34:36.9 Paul Austin: Experimentation.

0:34:38.6 JW Ross: Yeah. I went to two... For two years, I tried all different strains, hundreds of strains. It's kinda like cannabis. There's a lot of different strains and different percentages. And what I found is that some of it will just get you kinda too jacked up and jittery feeling, and some of it would just kinda put you on the couch and it just took time to find the right combination. Specifically your question about what type of kratom we're using, we're using a green vein kratom from Indonesia.

0:35:17.7 Paul Austin: Can you talk a little bit more about just the different types of kratom and why you chose the green strain to include in Feel Free?

0:35:26.6 JW Ross: The general thought is you have white, green and red, and the white is the most energizing. The green is the more feel good euphoric type, and then the red is your kind of sleepy time. Now that I'm digging much deeper into this, what I realize is that it's not really just about that, it's also how it's processed. And when I say how it's processed, how it's dried, because you can take a green vein leaf and if you put it out in the sun to dry it, it'll turn red. In the process of being in the sun, it will change its alkaloid ratios to more of what you would see if you had just the red from nature. So it's not just the plant, it's also how it's processed.

0:36:36.7 Paul Austin: It sounds like tea in that way. An oolong versus a pu-erh versus a black versus a green, versus a white. A lot of it comes from the same tea plant, but the way that it's processed and dried is different, which leads to then very different characteristics and qualities of the tea.

0:36:53.0 JW Ross: Exactly. Exactly.

0:36:57.3 Paul Austin: So one, 'cause I know some of the listeners who are listening to this, they're thinking of, okay, I've heard of kava and I've heard of kratom. A lot of the sort of pushback that I get is around, oh, kratom is an opiate, it's addictive. It has these addictive aspects and tendencies. And we've already covered some of this in terms of cocaine versus the coca leaf and extract versus the whole leaf. But I'm curious if you could just talk a little bit about that, the sort of addictive potential behind kratom-kava and maybe for your own use for people who you've talked with. What's a good balance in terms of working with Feel Free? Is it five days on, two days off? Is it an everyday thing? I use it almost every day, and I'll take just a week off every so often. Maybe every couple months I'll just be like, all right. I'll take a little bit of break and have a little bit of time off. But I'd love for you to speak to those naysayers who are listening to this, who are maybe very skeptical of kava-kratom and how you would sort of talk to them about that.

0:38:01.4 JW Ross: So kava is very interesting in that I've never read anything anywhere about anybody saying that it has any addictive qualities to it at all. I will say this, I spend quite a bit of time around natives in the Pacific Islands and they seem to crave it, for lack of a better word. So I don't know how much that's real. The thing is that I've never heard anybody say anything about any physical issues or social issues around using it, even using massive quantities of it. So kava is pretty damn safe for something that makes you feel good. Kratom is, in it's natural form for daily use, that's the way it's been used for thousands of years by millions of people in Southeast Asia and not really any issues. And these extracts, it's a whole different story, that can lead to a lot of issues. I mean, kratom is not actually an opioid. It hits the same receptors, but the opioids bind to those receptors, whereas the kratom strikes them and moves on.

0:39:39.8 JW Ross: The other major difference between kratom and opioids is it doesn't have a respiratory suppressant. And these hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people that you see that are dying from opioids, for the most part, the reason they die is they stop breathing because opioids have a respiratory suppressant. Kratom doesn't have that. I mean, you're not going to experience that with kratom. That said, you get too much of it in your system with the extracts, and you're gonna have other issues. I guess where I land on it is that, 'cause people ask me this all the time and like, "Is it addictive?" [chuckle] And I have addictive tendencies. There's no doubt about that. [chuckle] My thought is that after looking at this for my 30, 40 years that I've been using things, is that I think you can become dependent on anything that makes you feel good. And I think it's natural that that would happen because it does make you feel good.

0:41:09.6 JW Ross: I don't think that's the right question to ask. I think the question to ask is, if I use this on a regular basis, is this gonna harm me physically or socially? And can I keep it in moderation where it's not causing problems? And what I can say for myself again, having addictive genetics is that I could not do that with pretty much everything else that made me feel good. [chuckle] I can do that with Feel Free. And I can do that with kava by itself. That to me is the major difference. And beyond that I've taken early on, because nobody had mixed these plants together, I purposely took what in my mind would be abusive levels of it for extended period of time. And I did blood work, liver enzymes, all that, and compared that against my annual blood work, I didn't see any change in elevated liver enzymes, blood sugars, any of that stuff. Now, I didn't feel the way I wanted to feel. I had enough of it in my system that I felt a little toxic. But as far as blood chemistry, it didn't show that it was doing anything harmful.

0:42:43.1 Paul Austin: Has there... I'm curious, has there been any interest in doing clinical research with Feel Free on social anxiety or... Yeah. Yeah, just like, 'cause it's so novel and new and I agree with you that the whole plant approach and focus mitigates a lot of the potential dependency issues. And I agree with you as well that that's a great kind of lens to have is if I use this pretty consistently, will it be harmful rather than, is this quote unquote "addictive"? Because as you said, anything can become addictive. So I'm curious, how is it that you want to continue to explore this? Are you trying to team up with certain universities to look at research? Just tell us a little bit about that.

0:43:31.4 JW Ross: So we actually do have a clinical study that's in process right now. That study should be completed by the end of this year. And the studies around productivity enhancement and focus, in addition, it's the safety protocol and all that. But unfortunately it's a very long process to get through a clinical but so far the data's looking very positive.

0:44:05.1 Paul Austin: And I would wonder if you could also do even not so much experimental research or clinical research, but even observational research as... I mean, at this point there's probably tens of thousands of people who are utilizing Feel Free. And if even 500 of them filled out a survey or filled out something to help support kind of what this is doing and what it entails, I mean, I know I would participate in that. I know a lot of our audience would, we could probably get more detail from that.

0:44:40.1 JW Ross: Yeah. We keep, because we're required to by the FDA, we keep a log of all the instances that per their definition, and what I can tell you is that currently we're right at 2 million servings per month. So people are consuming 2 million servings a month, and we've not had one single serious incident. What we do here is that some people, which I think they're allergic to one or both of the active ingredients, have some nausea. In your body, if you're allergic to something, when you put it in your body, your body's pretty good about trying to get it out quickly. So you're not gonna feel good for a while, but it doesn't cause any permanent damage or any of that.

0:45:39.3 JW Ross: And the percentage of that, to give you an idea is we get about, out of the 2 million servings per month, we get about 30 to 35 reports of nausea. There's some other people that have experienced skin irritation, that type of stuff. But again, it's like a tiny, tiny percentage. We just finished going through an FDA audit, just a general audit of our production facilities and all that. And they looked at all the data and it's like the highest percentage, which is the nausea, is like 0.0001% or something. I mean, it's... The thing of it is, I mean, I don't care what it is, if it's peanuts or milk or wheat or what it is, there's some people that are not... Their systems are not gonna be able to tolerate it. And all of our chemistry and genetics are different and it's just there's certain substances that we can't have.

0:46:54.3 Paul Austin: So you mentioned the FDA and I'd love to hear you talk a little bit about, in a way like what is your relationship with the FDA? This has not been brought through clinical trials. Why is it that they have to audit? Just tell us a little bit about the legal bureaucratic relationship between kratom, kava, Feel Free and what they're watching or managing or whatever it is.

0:47:19.5 JW Ross: Well, anything like this is regulated by the FDA. The industry overall is 99.9% extracts. And they've taken the approach of staying away from the FDA and trying to play Whack-a-mole. We took the opposite approach. We engaged with them and have tried to do what a normal food or beverage manufacturer would do. It's been an interesting experience because we're the first to do that with this type of product. In addition to that, we're actually working to get regulation passed specific to kratom on both state and federal level because I feel that we need to have regulation.

0:48:30.5 JW Ross: I know that sounds strange, but I think we need to have regulation because if you don't have that, there's gonna be some bad actors out there that are gonna create some stuff or not have the right safety protocols in place and it's gonna hurt people. And when that happens, then they throw the baby out with the bath water [chuckle] So I'm trying to head all that off and put guidelines in place so this... Because what I'm seeing happening in this space is the same thing that I talked about earlier with THC. They're making it stronger and stronger and stronger and stronger. And the stuff now it's you take it and it's gonna make you sick. I mean, you're gonna throw it up. Most people are. It's just too strong.

0:49:28.1 Paul Austin: Talk a little bit about reverse tolerance. You had mentioned this right before we went on the podcast, that when you first started working with Feel Free, you would drink a full bottle and this is sort of where I'm at. I'll usually drink a full bottle in the morning and then maybe in the afternoon to the evening, if I have a social thing, I might drink another half. So usually my consumption is between one and one and a half bottles. You mentioned this idea of reverse tolerance, that you've not only been doing a half a bottle. Why is that? What is reverse tolerance? Would love to hear you talk a little bit.

0:50:01.1 JW Ross: So, I've read several articles about that kava has a reverse tolerance, which is, if that's real, it would be the only substance I think known to man that has that, that as you consume it over time your body becomes more efficient, you're processing it and you need less, less and less of it to get the same effect. I thought that was BS but I've done probably more Feel Free than anybody because I was doing it before anybody started and I use it on a regular basis. And the reason I put it in a two ounce serving is that used to be for the longest time I did the full two ounces every time I did it. And I found now that I don't really need that much, I don't like the experience as much having a full one as I do, I got down to half and now a lot of times I'll just do a third of a bottle. Now, whether that's the reverse tolerance in action or whether it's just because I'm using it differently than what I was before or want a different feeling, I don't know. But I can tell you that that's been my experience over the last three years.

0:51:26.0 Paul Austin: And I'll talk a little bit about my own experience as well 'cause I think it'll be helpful for listeners. So I first drank Feel Free when I was on Luke Storey's podcast, who's a mutual friend of ours. And Luke was like, "Hey, we're gonna be... " 'cause we did, I was on his podcast for like two and a half hours and he came on ours for an hour. So he's like, "We're gonna be talking for four hours, do you wanna try this Feel free stuff?" And I was like, "I'll try the Feel Free stuff." 'Cause prior to that I had often used micro doses of LSD, I had used micro doses of psilocybin. I had used cannabis as sort of a social inebriate. But like you said, it never really... With cannabis, there's a lot of fog.

0:52:01.0 Paul Austin: With LSD, it's a little too intense at times. With psilocybin, there's a lot of sort of somatic, and kind of body load. And I drank that right before doing the podcast, and it's just like, it was so easy to really drop into a flow, and just go with it. And so after, I believe Luke introduced us, we had a call, I got to know you a little bit. And then I didn't immediately get on the Feel Free train. I probably, September of this past year just was like, I had tried it a little bit more, and it's not inexpensive. It's also not crazy expensive, but it's definitely, if I'm gonna make that commitment, I'm gonna make that commitment. So, I ended up buying a box and signing up for the monthly subscription and just started to work with it. Not every single day, but every so often, maybe five days on, two days off.

0:52:57.6 Paul Austin: And what I just found is, anytime I would have a podcast, or if I was going out and socializing with friends, it just, like you said, I've struggled with social anxiety as well, and it just sort of put me into this really, this place of ease. The filter that I normally have, which is sort of a filter of being judged or kind of having my guard up. That just dropped away, so I could really just, really connect with people in a meaningful way. And what I noticed is I still slept great. There was no hangover whatsoever. Like with cannabis, if I smoke weed on one day, the next day I'll still kind of have some fog, and my short term memory won't be quite as good. With Feel Free it was none of that.

0:53:43.2 Paul Austin: It was like, I was still alert, I was still articulate, I was still on point. And I felt like there were, maybe this is just the hippie part of me, but I always feel like there are lessons to learn from some of these plants, whether it's Ayahuasca or psilocybin or 5-MeO or whatever it is. And so to work with something like this consistently, what I believe is happening is I'm also in a way rewiring my approach, my perspective. So even when I'm not on Feel Free, I still feel more open. I still feel more able to connect. It's helping to rewire my nervous system, just to be more... Just to be able to connect more with people. So, it's been a really beautiful substance to work with.

0:54:26.5 JW Ross: I firmly believe that. And where I really think I've become a more firm believer is spending more time in some of these societies, where they don't hardly even have alcohol or kava is what they use, and they use it throughout the community on a regular basis. They're some of the most open, loving emotional people. I mean, it's like night and day. And I'm wondering if what you're talking about is true, is that they've been using it for generations, and it it changes the wiring. And they're just, they're different. And when I say they're different, they're different in, you don't have the road rage, you don't have the... It's just, it's a more open loving society.

0:55:29.8 Paul Austin: Absolutely. Absolutely. Because I think if we've learned one thing from Shamanic indigenous or just people who are living closer to the land, right here in sort of American culture, we're very cut off from plants and from our natural environment. And yet we are... And I've learned this, especially working in the psychedelic space and doing a lot of plant medicine, psychedelic plant medicine, that we as humans have such an intimate relationship with the plants that are around us, and that the more we cultivate that relationship and are intentional about that relationship the more that the wisdom of that plant is sort of infused within our being. And so I love the kava-kratom mix as well, the 10 to one, because like you said, the kava by itself is a little bit, it downregulates a little bit too much. You're definitely social, but there's not a lot of energy. And the amount of kratom that's added in is like the perfect amount. So you can just sort of be alert and on top of things, but still feel really settled. Now... Go ahead.

0:56:36.2 JW Ross: One other quick thing I'd like to throw in, and this is the plant geek now coming out at me, around what we've just been talking about is we actually have been, I'm working with the University of Florida to grow both kava and kratom in the US in southern Florida. And the botanists there, we're introducing different pests into the orchards and stuff to see what happens. But one of the most fascinating things is that we have an orchard of kratom trees and it's a pretty good size orchard, but we'll introduce, or they introduce a beetle or some type of pest on one side. Within a very short period of time, the trees all the way over on the other side start raising their alkaloid levels.

0:57:42.0 JW Ross: And the reason these alkaloids are used by the trees as a natural fungicide, or to ward off different types of pests. But the only way that those trees could be doing that is they're communicating chemically through the air because the root systems don't touch each other. And it's just fascinating to me that we really are just scratching the surface on... It reminds me of, way back early on when I took the acid trips and all that about how you really see, I think, nature more like what it really is, that there's a lot more going on around you. And this is starting, to me, is we're scratching the surface on the science that that is actually going on. These plants are communicating with each other and just... I think it's fascinating.

0:58:48.2 Paul Austin: Yeah. There's a lot more subtlety than we can tune into. And the way that plants communicate, we're often, like you said, so loud, and this goes back to alcohol, right? Being sort of the predominant drug. It's just we're always so loud and egotistical and all that. We don't really have the opportunity to really listen. And I think what plants can teach us, whether it's kava-kratom, whether it's Ayahuasca, whether it's even non psychoactive plants, it's significant. And like you said, what we so often learn from psychedelics is, oh, I am deeply interdependent and connected to my natural environment. And recognizing that then allows us to to make the most of it. So two final questions I have for you before we wrap up. We're nearing the hour mark. One is sourcing. How do you choose what to source, what's the quality of what you source? Just tell us a little bit about that.

0:59:52.4 JW Ross: So we get all of our kava from Vanuatu and I spend quite a bit of time there working directly with the farmers. It's like, again, like cannabis, there's a lot of difference, depending on the strain you're using and the area you're getting it from, and even down to what was the... How much rain, what was the climate that season? Like wine. So there's a lot involved there that I've learned about. And I wanna make sure that because all kava is not created equal. It doesn't give you the same feeling. The kratom is kind of the same thing. I get that from Indonesia directly from the farmers there, and very specific with what the alkaloid ratios are. And we do a tremendous amount of lab testing on making sure that we're not getting variability.

1:01:03.3 Paul Austin: And heavy metals. Are heavy metals an issue or how do you test for that, or?

1:01:07.2 JW Ross: Yeah, we definitely, we test for all types of contaminants. And these plants are, they pull from the soil. So it's very important to be in areas where they're not getting too much heavy metals 'cause there are some out there that are.

1:01:28.5 Paul Austin: Okay. So final question is just your vision for Feel Free. You started this two and a half years ago. People are now consuming 2 million of these a month, so 25 million a year, which is incredible. So congratulations on just knocking it out of the ballpark completely. You also recently rolled out a supplement that's better for travel. So they are sort of gelatin capsules that you can take that have the kava-kratom. Yeah, what does this look like five years from now, 10 years from now? What's sort of the vision of what Botanic Tonics is becoming as a brand?

1:02:06.5 JW Ross: So you're right. The first iteration that we've brought out is a capsule version because as you know, the taste is strong. I mean, it's like most anything like this, it's got a pungent flavour to it. And some people just can't tolerate that. So we created the capsules to get by that. And also like if you're travelling, it's easier to take a bottle of capsules than all these little tonic bottles. The next thing, we actually have three or four different things coming out. We have a sleep version that's much more sedative and we have a more energizing version that I'm working on. And then we also have a... We should launch mid-year a non-kratom version. A version that doesn't have kratom in it. It's got some other natural plants. Actually three other plants that together create the same feel as the kratom does.

1:03:19.8 Paul Austin: Why is that? Why are you taking kratom out and kind of coming up with these new...

1:03:24.5 JW Ross: It's just because some people seem to have an aversion to kratom even in its natural form. So my thought is that I wanna create things that everyone can use if they want to. And I think we've figured out how to do that.

1:03:51.4 Paul Austin: Well, if you need any beta testers, I am more than happy.

1:03:54.8 JW Ross: I definitely... I've got some samples, so if you want to...

1:04:01.5 Paul Austin: I'll send you my address. For sure. I would love to let you know how it goes.

1:04:05.5 JW Ross: Yeah. [1:04:05.5] ____ I'll send some for you and you can let me know what you think.

1:04:07.2 Paul Austin: I would love that. So if folks wanna check out more, it's Is that the website?

1:04:19.1 JW Ross: That's correct. Yes.

1:04:19.9 Paul Austin: Okay. Third Wave is supporting Feel Free. We're doing a bit of a partnership together as well. So I think we're writing up some content around Feel Free and amplifying it through our newsletter. So we'll probably have some sort of code that folks who are listening can use. I honestly don't know what it is off the top of my head, but we'll add that into the show notes and I'll add sort of a conclusion to this to have that. Instagram if people wanna kinda... Is it Botanic Tonics on Instagram as well, JW?

1:04:47.7 JW Ross: Yeah, it's Botanic Tonics, yeah.

1:04:49.9 Paul Austin: Beautiful. So, Botanic Tonics on Instagram. Feel Free is the substance, the sort of two ounce shot. I love the taste. I know a lot of people don't like the earthy, pungent. I love it. I think it's awesome. So I just wanna congratulate you as an innovator, as an inventor. As I think creating this really hits the nail on the head for something that can actually replace alcohol. And so many cultural and health issues are related to alcohol. So it's early, it's only been around two and a half years, but yeah, I think you've just really hit the nail on the head. So congratulations just on all the work and effort you put into this. It's really a phenomenal invention.

1:05:38.2 JW Ross: Thank you for having me on.


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