In a rare bipartisan effort, 50 members of Congress have asked the DEA to hold off on the upcoming ban on the active ingredients in the plant Kratom (Mitragyna speciose). Kratom, a member of the coffee family, is used by many Americans as a substitute for opiates. A plethora of testimonials exist online by former users of Heroin and other drugs that the plant has “saved their life”. 130,000 people signed a recent White House petition to protest the DEA’s actions.
Politicians aren’t the only officials that suggest that the DEA’s decision might have been arrived hastily. Academicians at Sloan Kettering and Columbia suggest that the plant may have properties that could be harnessed into useful non-opioid painkillers.
On August 30th, the DEA banned, for a period of two years, the two active ingredients mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine, categorizing them as Schedule I drugs, the same category as Heroin and LSD. The ban is effective September 30th, 2016. Schedule I drugs are thought to have no medical use and present a major risk of addiction. This action means that even possession of the plant may be considered illegal and subject to prosecution.
The DEA considers Kratom to be an imminent public hazard, but some members of Congress disagree. In a recent letter to all representatives, Congressmen Mark Pocan (D- Wisconin) and Matt Salmon (R- Arizona) wrote “It (Kratom) binds to some of the same receptors as opioids, providing some pain relief and a calming effect, but not the same high. And the chemical doesn’t cause the same, sometimes deadly side effects as opioids, such as respiratory depression.”
This statement from the DEA: “… Kratom is abused for its ability to produce opioid-like effects and is often marketed as a legal alternative to controlled substances. Law enforcement nationwide has seized more kratom in the first half of 2016 than any previous year and easily accounts for millions of dosages intended for the recreational market, according to DEA findings. In addition, kratom 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. These three factors constitute a schedule I controlled substance according to the Controlled Substances Act passed by Congress in 1970.”
DEA statistics show more than 600 poison control calls relating to Kratom in the five year period from 2010 to 2015. Fifteen deaths have been attributed to Kratom use, although closer inspection reveals that fourteen of those deaths were also associated with other drugs. In contrast, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports 8,257 heroin-related deaths in 2013 alone.
Having said that, some countries where Kratom grows naturally have imposed a ban on export and, sometimes, use. This includes nations like Thailand and Malaysia.
Kratom is, indeed, a drug and should be regulated, but abruptly naming it a Schedule I substance similar to Heroin will discourage research into its properties and potential for use in cases of drug addiction, depression, PTSD, and chronic pain.
Once Kratom is off the market, will users return to opiates like Heroin? If they do, how many deaths will occur as a result? More than one, I would guess. Kratom may have addictive potential, but so do cigarettes and alcohol, which are responsible for many more deaths.
Should Kratom be regulated? Absolutely. As things stand now, there is no accepted dosage amount of Kratom and commercially-available products are widely variable in the amount of mitragynine and 7-hydroxy-mitragynine in them. Find and standardize an appropriate amount for safe use. This is a better option than taking it off the market altogether.
It’s a stretch to argue that Kratom is as bad as Heroin; the last thing we want is users to switch to substances that are more clearly associated with death.
Joe Alton, MD
Joe Alton MD is a medical preparedness writer for disasters and epidemics, and looks for ways to use both conventional and alternative methods to deal with scenarios where help may not be on the way. Check out his brand new 700 page Third Edition of The Survival Medicine Handbook for over 150 medical issues that you might encounter in disaster situations.