The Drug Enforcement Administration appears set to schedule kratom, a plant used in traditional medicine in Southeast Asia that has gained popularity in the United States as a chronic pain management tool and a way to kick opiate addiction.
On Aug. 31, the DEA announced the impending kratom ban, due to take effect on Sept. 30. At that time, kratom will join other “Schedule I” substances like heroin, cocaine and cannabis which the government deems both dangerous and lacking in medical use.
In the statement, the DEA says the plant’s “active materials” pose an “imminent hazard to public safety.” Advocates for the plant’s continued legal use argue otherwise, saying kratom is a safe alternative to opioid painkillers that has already helped ease withdrawals symptoms for thousands of people weaning themselves off of other addictive substances.
MintPress News spoke to James, a member of reddit’s popular kratom subreddit, who asked to be identified only by his first name, citing legal concerns over his use of kratom to treat severe chronic pain.
“It literally transformed my life, it’s just incredible,” James said of the substance.
Kratom saves lives?
Kratom has been growing in popularity in the U.S. recent years. The agency said it encountered over 55,000 pounds of kratom at “various ports of entry within the United States” between February 2014 to July 2016, and that it was aware of 15 deaths caused by the substance between 2014 and 2016.
“It kind of makes me sick when I think I’m not going to be able to have access to the plant after the 30th of September,” said James, who took issue with almost every aspect of the DEA’s announcement, especially the reported risks of the plant.
He’s far from alone in criticizing the impending ban, which provoked outcry on social media, inspired a White House petition asking for it to remain legal, and spawned the hashtag #KratomSavesLives on Twitter.
With an ongoing, and growing, epidemic of opioid overdoses sweeping the country, James suggested that access to the plant is more important now than ever. Rather than saving lives, James warned that the DEA’s ban could actually have the opposite effect. He explained:
“There’s going to be people overdosing, and people going back to harder drugs because they don’t have access to kratom. People are dependent on kratom to help them treat their withdrawals or treat their chronic pain.”
The DEA, however, doesn’t appear to be swayed by the wave of public support for keeping kratom legal. David Kroll, a contributor to Forbes, noted on Aug. 31 that in its haste to ban kratom, the DEA circumvented laws requiring the agency to consider public comment.
Kroll also cast doubt on the DEA’s framing of the ban as a solution to a public health emergency, writing:
“As an example of the risks of kratom, the DEA cites a CDC study published this summer that counted 660 poison control calls during a five-year period from 2010 to 2015 on behalf of people suffering untoward reactions to the herb or teas made from the plant material.”
He added, “To put kratom risks in perspective, poison control centers received 6,843 reports of young children ingesting single-load laundry pods in just the first seven months of 2016.”
‘Negligible harmful effects’
“[K]ratom has a high potential for abuse, has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and has a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision,” the DEA wrote in its announcement.
An examination of kratom’s traditional use suggests the agency’s assessment may be missing the mark when it comes to the plant’s safety and potential medical uses. A member of the coffee family native to Southeast Asia, the raw leaf of kratom, or Mitragyna speciosa, is traditionally chewed as a mood enhancer or painkiller.
Thailand banned the plant in 1943, seeking to protect the country’s lucrative opium taxes, but there’s a growing movement to legalize it again. In a May 2011 report for the sustainability NGO Transnational Institute, Pascal Tanguay examined kratom’s use in Thailand. Tanguay found that “kratom is an integral part of Thai culture and has negligible harmful effects.”
Tanguay, the former program director of the Thailand offices of PSI, a Washington-based global health organization that promotes harm reduction among drug users, currently serves as an associate for the International Drug Policy Consortium in Asia.
“Criminalisation of kratom is unnecessary and counter-productive given decades of unproblematic use,” Tanguay continued. “In the absence of health and social harms, decriminalise use, possession and production of kratom and empower community leaders to control production and manage consumption.”
Meanwhile, the DEA’s claims about kratom-related fatalities could be misleading. In 2010, for example, Swedish researchers linked the deaths of nine people to a dangerous chemical additive found in a kratom product. In other words: Kratom itself may not be dangerous, but other chemicals and additives in unregulated products sold as kratom can pose serious harm.
“There’s never been a single death associated with kratom,” Tanguay told Global Post’s Patrick Winn in September 2013.
“People have been chewing this for thousands of years with no cases of overdose, psychosis, murder, violent crime. Never in all of recorded history.”
James told MintPress that he can take small doses of kratom and remain alert enough to work. At higher doses, unpleasant side effects like vomiting and headaches appear quickly, well before most users can ingest a deadly or dangerous amount.
“You’re going to throw up, you’re going to get sick,” he said. ”It’s not going to kill you, it’s just going to make you uncomfortable.”
Like most opioids, kratom is addictive. But a reddit FAQ on quitting kratom suggests that, for many users, the worst symptoms of withdrawal often pass within a week.
‘When I found kratom, it was kind of like a miracle’
James spent about six years as a professional mixed martial arts competitor before a severe back injury left him with severe, debilitating nerve pain.
“A long time after the initial injury I wasn’t very mobile,” he said. “There were days where I couldn’t walk. It’s an incredible amount of pain.”
The constant, intense pain made it almost impossible for him to sleep, which also contributed to overwhelming depression. “I was in a pretty bad spot for about two years.”
James found prescription painkillers largely ineffective, and he was also concerned about the consequences of addiction. “I’d lost a brother earlier,” he said, “so it was kind of obvious I didn’t want to go that route.”
Now, James treats his pain with kratom, which he consumes during the day in powdered form via pills or in a tea. He said it usually takes effect within 45 minutes of ingestion, allowing him to quickly return to work and to sleep through the night.
“When I found kratom, it was kind of like a miracle,” he said.
James has communicated with dozens of other reddit users who’ve used kratom to treat their drug addictions and ease the effects of opioid withdrawal that can sometimes be life threatening. James told MintPress:
“It’s not that kratom was a fix-all for them, but when they have these withdrawals that cause them to have headaches, nausea, and some of them anxiety attacks … kratom relieves that for them. Kratom has almost no danger to it, so they go from using this extremely dangerous hardcore substance to using a plant.”
He suggested the DEA’s move to ban kratom could be financially motivated, because kratom can be much cheaper for addicts than the options presented by the pharmaceutical industry. James continued:
“It’s bad timing for the good people of America, but it’s good timing for them that profit off of it. They’re producing all these drugs to get people off the drugs they’re producing, and these drugs aren’t cheap.”
Despite kratom’s uncertain future James hopes those in the movement to legalize cannabis, another plant-based medicine with widespread medical applications, will also throw their support behind kratom. “Their fight is our fight, and our fight is their fight,” he said.
Cannabis’ schedule I status has made research into the plant’s potential benefits extremely difficult — a fate James fears will befall kratom as well.
“People need to have access to a plant that helps them,” James urged. ”They don’t have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on medication, they just have to harvest the plant and help themselves.
“These plants help people, they’re inexpensive, why can’t they have access to them?” he asked.
Feature photo | Green Bali Kratom powder is displayed next to it’s packaging. Kratom, which is widely available in gas stations and other shops, is set to be banned by the DEA.