Kratom, a plant native to Southeast Asia, and a relative of the coffee plant, is making headlines as the DEA moves to classify the herb as a Schedule I Controlled Substance, the same category for marijuana, LSD, and heroin.
The herb is typically taken in pill form or brewed into a tea for consumption. Kratom users and advocates cite a wide range of uses and benefits. For many, it’s taken for relief from chronic pain, depression, or PTSD episodes. Others use it as an aid in ending dependency on alcohol, opiates and/or prescription medications.
However, according to the DEA, “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.”
The DEA’s concerns arise from 15 deaths that have been attributed to kratom since 2014. (In 14 of the 15 cases other drugs were present in the individual’s system.) Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control received 660 complaints about the substance between 2010 and 2015.
“The report has been criticized as being relatively inconsequential,” says pharmacologist and medical writer David Kroll. “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.”
DEA Surprised by Pushback
When the DEA announced its intent to classify the substance in late August, pro-kratom advocacy groups sprung to life to spread awareness and fight the ban. A petition on Whitehouse.gov to keep the substance legal has nearly 124,000 signatures.
“The response has been unexpected,” says DEA special agent Melvin Patterson. “People calling us in opposition of our plan to temporarily schedule kratom as a Schedule I, due to it not having a medical use.”
But there is little hope the DEA will have a change of heart. The agency plans to skip the public and scientific comment period leading up to the ban:
The Administrator finds that there is good cause to forgo the notice and comment requirements of section 553, as any further delays in the process for issuance of temporary scheduling orders would be impracticable and contrary to the public interest in view of the manifest urgency to avoid an imminent hazard to the public safety.
- Federal Register publication
The Concern Over Schedule I
As it stands, the majority of evidence supporting kratom’s medicinal use is anecdotal. Users testify to the health and life benefits of the substance, but the herb and its effect on patients have not been extensively studied in clinical trials.
The main chemical in kratom is mitragynine. Mitragynine loosely binds to some of the same receptors as opioids, inducing pain relief and euphoric feelings, but no intense high. And the chemical doesn’t have the dangerous side effects, like respiratory depression, of opioids. The substance has been enjoyed for hundreds of years in Southeast Asia, where farmers use it as both a stimulant for increased energy at work, and at the end of the day for relaxation.
However, the DEA’s ban would halt scientific progress towards understanding the plant’s unique effects, as it is incredibly difficult to meet regulatory standards to be allowed to conduct a clinical trial with Schedule I substances.
The American Kratom Association formed in 2014 “to protect the right of all Americans to use the natural botanical Kratom for improved health and well-being.” In a video on their homepage, they claim:
There are some in government trying to define kratom as a harmful and dangerous drug to help the pharmaceutical industry keep the world reliant on their synthetic and many times ineffective and addictive drugs.
- American Kratom Association video
A majority of the present concern comes from individuals who’ve used kratom to end their dependency on harsher, more damaging substances – both legal and illegal – and who fear returning to their prior dependencies once kratom is classified.