In 2016, 142,000 Americans signed a petition that, for the first time in history, stopped the DEA from scheduling a drug they had set their sights on.
The drug was kratom, a tree-like shrub related to the coffee plant. Native to Southeast Asia, kratom has gained great popularity in the United States in the last decade as a natural remedy for pain, anxiety, and depression. An estimated 3-5 million Americans use the drug yearly, and many swear by it as a natural way to rid themselves of opiate addictions.
Users ingest the crushed kratom leaf as a powder, in capsules, in tea or extract to feel its mildly stimulating to heavily pain relieving and sedative effects, depending on the dosage taken. Proponents of kratom say it’s a natural alternative to addictive prescription drugs like Oxycontin and hydrocodone, but in February the FDA released a report that classified the active alkaloids in kratom as opioids, based on 3-D modeling that showed kratom affects the brain similarly to opiates.
Phil Krell was an intravenous opiate user who went to rehab and got clean. Six sober months later, he walked into a Kava bar in Delray Beach that sold kratom. He gave kratom a shot and enjoyed it. That was four and a half years ago, and while Phil still uses kratom regularly, he says it pales in comparison to the hard drugs that he used to shoot up.
“In the same way I’m addicted to coffee or cigarettes, I’ll get cranky without it sometimes. But it’s nothing like the dire need which comes with opiate addiction,” Krell said. “You get used to a functional high (being on opiates), something you can do and get on with your day and it’s effect is something you crave even in recovery. Kratom satiates that in a safe and no where near as intense way.”
In August of 2016, the Drug Enforcement Administration enacted an emergency intent to schedule kratom, which would have put it in the same category as LSD and heroin. A petition against the ban garnered over 142,000 signers and 23,000 online commenters, convincing the DEA not to schedule it. But as recently as February, the FDA classified kratom as an opioid, citing 36 deaths associated with kratom and underscoring its dangerous and addictive potential.
Research shows that kratom’s active ingredients, mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine, have similar molecular structures to classic opiates like morphine. They act on some of the same brain receptors, which could explain why users report higher doses of kratom having opiate-like effects .
Chad, an ex-opiate addict who asked to remain anonymous, said that kratom is weak and short-lived compared to the heroin that he used to use. Though he did feel pain relief from the herb, Chad said he had to take such large amounts of kratom to relieve his opiate cravings that he would usually vomit.
Kratom remains unscheduled and is sold with little regulation as a dietary supplement. This lassiez-faire treatment has allowed scores of kratom companies to pop up in an attempt to capitalize on the $5 billion industry.
With such few rules to abide by, consumers don’t really know where their kratom is coming from. Kratom sellers can choose to have their products tested for impurities and potency, but they aren’t required to.
Caleb Barlow started using kratom to get off methadone after he was released from prison. He first bought some at a gas station after the attendant gave him a general description of its affects. He says its helped relieve his withdrawal symptoms and he was able to stop using methadone completely.
Eventually Caleb started seeking out cheaper sources of kratom and formulating his own extracts. Caleb now makes a proprietary extract at his home, which he sells under his company name, CB Botanicals.
“We’ve stepped up and a lot of vendors have stepped up and are trying to regulate the industry themselves,” Barlow said. “We show our customers and put on our website the tests and the lab work showing the customer what the product is.”
Kratom’s wide-open market does pose a potential hazard for customers. There’s no real way for buyers to know the purity and potency of the product. Customers must trust that they aren’t getting an altered product and use experimentation to find a brand that they like.
In fact, nine of the deaths mentioned in the FDA’s report were from a series of overdoses in Sweden that were caused by opioid-tainted kratom. However, all but one of the deaths listed in the report were people who had multiple substances in their system. The report also included a suicide, a gunshot wound to the chest, and a man who fell out of a window and refused treatment.
The risks that kratom poses do need to be addressed, but 36 deaths worldwide pales in comparison to the 115 people dying every day from opiates. Should the DEA and the FDA really be attempting to ban a substance that could make a dent in the opioid epidemic?