Kratom (officially: mitragyna speciosa) is a tropical tree in Southeast Asia whose leaves have been used in traditional medicine for hundreds of years to relieve pain. The leaves can be eaten raw (if you are weird like that) but more often they are crushed to be used in capsules, liquids, or brewed as tea. Depending on the dosage, kratom can act as a stimulant or a sedative. It is commonly used to help manage chronic pain, for treating opioid withdrawal symptoms, and/or for recreational purposes.
People swear by it for pain relief, energy, combating depression and anxiety, as well as kratom’s ability to help opioid users kick their habits for good. My friend, once a user and abuser of pain pills, has been clean for years and he attributes that to his use of kratom. He is not alone — a Facebook group he added me to is full of similar stories from cancer patients, pain sufferers, former addicts, those prone to regular, debilitating migraines, and more. The American Kratom Association is dedicated to sharing the pros of kratom and dispelling the many “misconceptions, misunderstandings and flat-out lies floating around about kratom”. Their website states that is it: not a drug, not habit forming (unless used in high doses over an extended period of time), not synthetic, and contains no opiates. They state, “It does bind to the same receptor sites in the brain. Chocolate, coffee, exercise and even human breast milk hit these receptor sites in a similar fashion.”
Kratom is currently legal and unregulated. So why is the DEA and FDA vehemently opposing kratom use? While supporters have tried to keep kratom legal for years, the DEA announced a decision to temporarily listed kratom as a Schedule 1 controlled substance in 2016, but withdrew the decision after an outcry. It has been banned in various cities and a small handful of states by local laws. This past week the FDA issued a warning which you can read more of in this aptly named article “Kratom Products Can Kill You, FDA Says”. Shipments were seized and are being detained for destruction. The FDA is mostly concerned with the lack of testing and scientific studies on the substance. Still, the common side effects are minor: nausea, vomiting, constipation, and a possibility of headaches when you cease using it and experience minor withdrawal symptoms. The deaths that the FDA cites all occurred when kratom was present but was mixed with other substances — kratom not being a sole or deciding factor.
This debate may seem familiar — look at marijuana, for instance — we often see two sides: The DEA/FDA/government trying to stop, control, and regulate as they continue to wage the War on Drugs VS. the people who use it, see its value, or just don’t believe it is any more harmful than alcohol. The side that supports the legalization of these substances usually believes that there is a lot of money at stake if marijuana/kratom, etc. can be used to help treat medical or physical ailments. (Big pharma no likey.) And the resentment between the two sides can breed a lot of misinformation. Those who are involved can feel like they have a lot to lose: the DEA being concerned with loss of lives and supporters concerned with loss of freedoms. But, it can be said that the us vs. them mentality hasn’t gotten us very far (and neither has the War on Drugs, for that matter).
The Middle Ground
Most of the kratom users I spoke with believe strongly that kratom should be legal, arguing it is no more harmful than coffee. The real problem: unregulated. That means there is no testing of the product for purity or potency. Meaning it can be laced with other harmful substances or otherwise tainted — a big concern. Sometimes the finished product is mixed into cocktails with psychoactive drugs like codeine, making it unsafe for consumers. Kratom supporters want there to be safe, quality product available but they also don’t agree with the FDA’s solution: a ban, vilification, and lots of lots of paperwork, legal, and court proceedings. Government agencies often have very clear-cut views on substances: good or bad/legal or illegal, not leaving much room for a middle ground where consumers make their own educated choices.