The DEA Is Banning a Little Known Medicinal Plant Called Kratom
But there's not much evidence that it's actually dangerous.
Kratom tree. Image: Wikimedia Commons
The US government is set to ban kratom, a medicinal plant and painkiller, even though researchers say it might not be dangerous.
Native to Southeast Asia, kratom has traditionally been brewed in tea, or ground up and encapsulated as powder. Historically, Thai laborers would use it to help them work longer hours without pain. But the drug has gone from subtle roots to becoming a Schedule I drug, akin to heroin in the eyes of the Drug Enforcement Administration. The DEA's temporary ban will go into effect on September 30.
Kratom is most commonly used to treat chronic pain. The chemicals in kratom bond to the brain's opiate receptors, making it the drug of choice for some patients with conditions like fibromyalgia or multiple sclerosis. Sometimes, it's also a treatment for opiate addicts undergoing withdrawal—the medical journal Addiction featured one such pain patient who switched from Dilaudid pills to kratom tea.
In low doses, it acts as a slight stimulant, and in higher doses it acts like more of a sedative, one reason kratom has also been hailed as an anti-anxiety drug. But lately, as Motherboard reported earlier, kratom pills sold online have become a sort of lovechild between adderall and oxycontin.
Kratom has no history of being particularly popular, or problematic.
The relatively unknown drug has received some sporadic media attention the past few years, as it eventually made its way into the awareness of the Drug Enforcement Administration. In an emergency action this past August, the DEA placed kratom temporarily into the Schedule I category, which states it has "no accepted medical use." The move was reminiscent of our marijuana legislation.
As kratom has no history of being particularly popular, or problematic, surprised vendors have rushed to remove it from their shelves before the DEA moves toward a permanent ban. And they aren't happy about it.
"If kratom becomes a Schedule I drug, America will see what a true epidemic looks like, all the while denying American citizens of the only substance that eases their pain, depression, anxiety, PTSD, etc.," said Robert McMahan, head of the online kratom vendor Blue River Wellness, in an email. He said kratom has been a much safer alternative to other opiates and drugs like meth and heroin.
Kratom is currently legal in all but six states, including Indiana and Alabama—which already classify it as Schedule I and also ban manufacture, sale, financing, and possession of the drug.
The DEA's decision to ban kratom is based in politics, rather than science, said Jag Davies, director of communications strategy at the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that advocates for policy reform. "Any substance can be dangerous, but can the substance be legally regulated in a way that would do more good than harm and which would protect public safety?"
Kratom isn't completely safe. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, calls to US poison centers about kratom increased from 26 in 2010 to 263 in 2015. And the DEA recorded 15 kratom-related deaths from 2014 to 2016. (All of the deaths involved other drugs.)
"The responsibility for deciding drug classifications should be removed from the DEA and transferred to a health or science agency."
But compared to other hard drugs like heroin, and other painkillers, kratom can be fairly harmless. There are no recorded overdoses from kratom alone, and Davies said the withdrawal symptoms from those who have been addicted are weak and inconsequential, especially compared with those from amphetamines and opiates. The DEA ban, he said, doesn't account for this research.
"This is an opportunity to rethink the drug classification system and to reevaluate the DEA's role in decision making about drug classification," he said. "The responsibility for deciding drug classifications should be removed from the DEA and transferred to a health or science agency."
With the move to ban kratom, the DEA wasn't expecting the outrage that ensued from the kratom community. "That was eye-opening for me personally," said DEA spokesperson Melvin Patterson. "I want the kratom community to know that the DEA does hear them." And with little research on kratom available, the DEA claims its actions are coming from a place of caution: To "avoid an imminent hazard to the public safety."
But placing kratom in Schedule I, advocates argue, will only make research that much more difficult to obtain, similar to marijuana. An estimated three to five million Americans have tried kratom so far. With a ban in place they're more likely to be thrown in jail than to find out what they're using to kill their pain.