Kratom is a little-understood substance that has inspired its fair share of hysteria. Had the DEA succeeded, it would already be banned in the United States. But kratom has stuck around and shown some surprising capabilities. Risk of death and addiction are low, and it may be a valuable resource in the fight against the opioid epidemic.
Kratom is sold online and marketed as a natural herb with astoundingly curative properties. This kind of advertising set off alarm bells for Dr. Josh Bloom. Bloom is the Senior Director of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the American Council of Science and Health. “One of the top ten topics I write about is herbal supplements. For the most part, the whole industry is a sham. Untested drugs with no utility and the possibility for harm” says, Bloom.
Bloom wrote an article in last year called “Kratom: The Supplement That Will Kill Godzilla.” While the headline is sensational, the point of the article is that kratom is very much a drug with real effects, not a harmless supplement. His view on kratom hasn’t changed, but the situation has.
After it’s ingested, kratom hit’s many different receptors in the brain. “We call it a dirty drug,” says Bloom. Dirty, in this case, only refers to the number of receptors it connects within the brain. Kratom hits some, but not all of these receptors are the same ones common opioids like Oxycontin or Fentanyl hit. This wide array of receptors is key to understanding what makes kratom an effective tool but also highlights some of its dangers.
A 2008 Society for the Study of Addiction study found that kratom did act as an opioid replacement therapy for one 43-year-old man. The study notes however that kratom “has additional receptor affinities that might augment its effectiveness at mitigating opioid withdrawal.”
A growing body of research suggests kratom can aid in giving up harder drugs. This has not gone unnoticed by harm reduction specialists.
Kratoms relative safety, especially compared to a horror show like fentanyl, convinced Dr. Bloom kratom may have a place in this conversation. For Sarah Blyth, kratom is a hopeful implement in a desperate time. Blyth runs a DIY overdose prevention site in Vancouver. Vancouver’s east side especially particularly devastated by the fentanyl crisis. “Everyday more people are dying,” she says.
Blyth first sought kratom after her organization, called High Hopes, was approached by someone who shared his experience. It helped him get off deadlier opiates, so Blyth began asking around and learned that kratom was much more popular than she initially thought. “It surprised me, so many people were already aware of it,” she says.
Once she found a reliable, certifiable source of kratom, it became a mainstay at the overdose prevention site. Eventually, she plans to get the raw leaves and make it in the city, just to be sure of the quality. So far, there have been absolutely no negative reactions to kratom that Blyth is aware of. “Sometimes it doesn’t work at all,” she notes, but generally, “we’ve had more negative outcomes with THC.”
While Dr. Bloom notes that kratom is much less harmful than other opiates, he’s uneasy about the substance in these kinds of harm prevention scenarios. While so many unknowns surround kratom, Bloom says situations like this can be like, “using human subjects for what should have been done in animals.”
In Vancouver’s east side, there’s not enough time to wait for kratom to be totally understood. If it’s possible it can help somebody stay alive another day, it might be worth it. “Even if it only helps 5 people,” says Blyth.
Kratom has properties that do make it an effective opioid replacement therapy, but how effective it isn’t totally clear. And, it’s astronomically safer than fentanyl. To know for sure, there needs to be more study of kratom. Blyth and High Hopes do have volunteers collecting data, “but it’s a slow build,” says Blyth.
In the meantime, however, she can do it, Blyth goal is clear. “Kratom eases the urge to go get the awful drugs that kill you. We’re just trying to do whatever we can to stop the death.”