The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has outlawed another plant. Why? Kratom, a tree from Southeast Asia, is a threat to public safety. But, just what is kratom and why does the DEA want it banned? Turns out, it’s another possible replacement for opioid painkillers. Here’s the story behind this tropical green.
What is kratom?
Kratom (Mitragyna Speciosa) is a tropical tree native to Southeast Asia, the Phillepeans, and New Guinea. It’s related to the coffee plant, which most of us know quite intimately.
Kratom has been used in a traditional capacity for millennia. Similar to coffee, it has historically been consumed to combat fatigue and to enhance productivity in farming communities in Southeast Asia. Kratom leaves were also brewed into teas for social and religious ceremonies.
So, why is everyone in such a ruckus over a tree? Turns out, it has some psychoactive and medicinal properties. Kratom contains mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine, compounds which engage opioid receptors. They have a similar action to opiate drugs, though they are not opiates themselves.
As a result, it relieves pain and provides sensations of euphoria. In low doses, kratom has a stimulating effect. In high doses, it’s more sedative and narcotic. It has even been used medicinally to help people overcome opioid withdrawal. Yet, the leaves do have some side effects.
For some people, kratom can be habit forming. It can also cause withdrawal, which includes muscle spasms, mood swings, muscle aches, depression, insomnia, agitation, anxiety, nausea, and constipation. There have even been cases of psychosis and seizures associated with overdoses of the leaf.
Why is the DEA banning another plant?
According to the DEA, kratom has no medicinal use. Yet, Karisa Rowland has used it to come off of a prescription opioid addiction. She has had several back surgeries and struggles to cope with her chronic pain. Her dependence on painkillers landed her in jail after DUI. She tells her story to NPR,
I am looking around and I’m watching raw sewar float through a vent in the floor thinking wow. This has to stop.
So, to manage her pain and kick the prescriptions, she turned to kratom powder. Others use kratom as a replacement for anti-anxiety and antidepressant medication. It may also help people overcome alcohol addiction.
DEA officials say that the move to schedule kratom is “out of public concern.” Between January 2010 and December 2015, there were 660 calls about the plant to U.S. poison centers. Unfortunately, prescription opioids have this number beat.
Each day, over 1,000 people are treated in emergency departments for the misuse of opioid medications. From January 01 to August 31, 2016, 40,344 calls were made to poison centers regarding opioids.
The DEA cited 15 kratom deaths from 2014 to 2016, though 14 of those individuals had other drugs in their systems as well. To compare, there were 28,000 deaths from opioids in 2014 alone. Basically, opioids kill a few thousand people more than one entire U.S. town every single year.
While heroin is a schedule 1 drug (along with marijuana and now kratom), prescription opioids are schedule II. This includes fentanyl, which is 25 to 50 times stronger than heroin and is the culprit behind the sharp spike in overdose deaths over the past 3 years.
Is kratom really dangerous?
Kratom fans are not the only ones complaining about the DEA’s decision. David Kroll, a pharmacologist and medical writer, tells NPR,
Kratom being lumped in with other opoids is both unfair and unscientific. […] It glosses over the subtleties of how the main chemical in kratom actually works. – Kroll
He continues to tell NPR that classifying kratom as a dangerous drug is going overboard. Kroll explains that the active compound in kratom doesn’t produce the same high associated opioids like fentanyl, morphine, and heroin.
He worries that banning the plant will push people back to opioids and alcohol. He’s also concerned about the research delay the ban will cause.
The general population tends to be skeptical about any plant that seems to alter mood. Their concerns are understandable. Kratom can be habit forming and have some serious side effects. Because of these side effects, regulation and further study may be a good thing.
Yet, that’s not what happened. Instead of looking at regulation options, the DEA listed an all-out ban before medical professionals and researchers got a chance to understand the herb. Can we make safer painkillers from one of the many phytochemicals in kratom?
Looks like we won’t get a chance to know. Perhaps the real question is: why are opioid alternatives consistently banned by the DEA?
In case you’re interested, you can sign a petition against the ban here.
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