BY: MIROSLAV TOMOSKI
It can be mashed, chewed, taken as a pill or dissolved into a number of beverages. In essence, Kratom is a tea leaf that has been consumed by farmers in South-East Asia for so long it’s become a cultural fixture. This natural painkiller has been likened to its genetic cousin, coffee, and has been used as a sedative and treatment for opioid addiction. On September 30, 2016 it will also become a Schedule I illegal substance in America.
In late August, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) announced that it would call for an emergency rescheduling of Kratom, which has already been banned in six states and a few local counties, but remains legal in the rest of the country. As a new arrival to the US, the substance has been consumed on a relatively small scale for nearly ten years.
Recent deaths associated with the plant have caused the famous pursuers of Palo Escobar to consider it, “an imminent hazard to public safety” – a decision which has incited an online riot among Kratom’s users who swear by it as a medicine.
Ethnobotanist Daniel J. Siebert believes the coming ban is a product of misinformation and has created a guide to ensure its safe use. According to Siebert – who prefers to consume his Kratom as a milkshake – the substance works on two seemingly opposite levels based on the dosage.
At a low dose the plant works as a stimulant making the user more sociable and energetic; while a higher dose works as a sedative, putting the user into a dreamlike state in which it acts as a painkiller.
“It will be very pleasant [at a higher dose] to lie down on your back in a semi-darkened room, with eyes closed, and just listen to your favourite music.” Siebert explains while also warning that first time users might experience some discomfort and should always start with a lower level.
Kratom has been used to increase sexual drive, treat diarrhea, bodily pain, and – most importantly – opiate addiction which is why medically dependent users were shocked by the DEA’s announcement.
For many users, Kratom is the only thing that works. Among several YouTube videos, forums, and a petition to the White House which has gathered 120,787 signatures, an advocacy group known as the American Kratom Association features testimonials on their website:
“I have tried a lot of medications and this has been the best. Please do not take away a natural medication that has changed my life.” Says Angela Pittman who suffers from post-concussion syndrome.
“After being on high doses of Morphine and OXY for over 12 years, I was able to stop completely with the help of the Kratom using small doses,” Pamela Hogan tells the Association, “Sure, there was some suffering, but having tried to stop before, it was much easier with Kratom – less painful and pretty much eliminated the feeling of, “coming out of my skin.”
According to the DEA, Kratom qualifies as a Schedule I substance because it, “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 justification given by the Agency is a word-for-word quote from the Controlled Substances Act. Under the current definition of Schedule I, which includes marijuana, LSD, and heroin – three chemically unique substances – the DEA can add any chemical compound which has no accepted medical purpose and could potentially cause harm. But with an estimated 2.1 million addicted to opioids in the United States, with a large number linked to Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved prescription drugs, the line between illicit drug and medicinal substance can be hard to distinguish.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), an organisation that conducts research on substance abuse and treatment, reports that the side-effects of Kratom include: drowsiness, loss of appetite, dry mouth, itching, sweating, nausea, constipation, and increased urination among other minor effects.
It also notes that it is possible to develop a dependence on Kratom after prolonged use, the symptoms of which include: muscle pain, mood swings, runny nose and sleeplessness.
That same list of side effects for Buprenorphine, an FDA approved treatment for opioid addiction, looks quite familiar: constipation, headache, sweating, drowsiness, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain and itching.
NIDA also points out that patients can develop a dependence on Buprenorphine, but that the symptoms are not as severe as the opioid it’s meant to treat. The effects of withdrawal can include: cold or flu-like symptoms, sweating, muscle pain, headache and sleeplessness.
Both Kratom and Buprenorphine work to activate – rather than block – receptors in the brain that would otherwise be affected by other opioids, so it makes sense that the adverse effects would be similar. Both drugs also have advocates who claim that the dangers of use are not as extreme as they are made out to be.
“The greatest risk is falling asleep while engaged in hazardous activities.” Siebert says in his guide, “Use common sense. Do not use power tools or climb ladders while under the influence.”
On the other hand, the families of those whose deaths have been linked to Kratom have been actively campaigning to have it outlawed. In its official announcement, the DEA said that it had been made aware of 15 Kratom-related deaths between 2014 and 2016. While the Agency did not provide any details, one known death linked to Kratom is that of Guy Atencio of Colorado.
“To know in such a short time that he was here, that a drug that is not regulated, that’s glorified on the Internet, took his life.” Guy’s wife Carrie told a local news station. “I tell you, it is a big deal to me.”
An autopsy concluded that Atencio’s death was the result of, “apparent acute mitragynine toxicity” referring to the active chemical in Kratom.
Guy’s family knew that he had been using a mysterious new drug to relieve pain, and claimed that he was otherwise healthy and drug free. But According to NIDA, “Kratom by itself is not associated with fatal overdose, but commercial forms of the drug are sometimes laced with other compounds that have caused deaths.”
In his guide, Siebert warns that it is important to consider the source of the drug and its combination with synthetic opioids that can prove to be fatal as in the case of a mixture from Sweden called Kripton.
“Disturbingly, some products labeled as Kratom extracts have been found to contain the “designer drug” O-desmethyltramadol,” he says, “which is a dangerously potent synthetic opioid drug.”
In fact, a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report was cited by the DEA for its discovery of 660 Kratom related calls to poison control centers between 2010 and 2015. However, that same report noted that only 49 cases or 7.4 percent exhibited life-threatening symptoms, with only one death reported in which the victim used prescription drugs in addition to Kratom.
In comparison, the CDC has found that opioids killed more than 28,000 people in a single year (2014), and that half of those deaths involved prescription drugs.
So why would the DEA consider an emergency rescheduling of a plant that offers lower risk to public safety than pharmaceuticals? In their announcement, the Agency stated that Kratom was a drug that had already been banned in a number of countries.
Among the first to ban the substance was the country in which it originates: Thailand. After its transition to democracy in the 1930s, Thailand’s government sought to control and tax its opium trade. The decision caused the price of opiates to skyrocket and sent addicts looking for a cheaper alternative that had already been growing in the country for centuries. With its opium revenues cut short by a tea leaf, some believe the Thai government banned Kratom in 1943 to cut out the competition.
Thailand has long since outlawed nearly all illicit drugs we are familiar with in the west, but has considered relaxing those laws in recent years.
“We want to reclassify them because hemp can be an economic crop; Kratom is used by many people as an herb, especially people in the south, who like to chew it,” Sirinya Sitdhichai, director of Thailand’s Narcotics Control Board, told the newspaper Khaosod.
“We are changing so that we comply with recommendations from the U.N.,” he added, referring to the fact that Kratom is not listed in any of the Schedules of the United Nations Drug Conventions. “Many countries also think that waging a war on drugs doesn’t solve the problem. If we steer addicts toward therapy, it would solve the problem.”
So while the international community slowly welcomes treatment over punishment, the DEA seems to be falling behind by adding relatively harmless drugs to its list of enemies. As evidence continues to grow against the war on drugs, so do questions of the purpose the DEA might serve in the future.
In the age of Ganjapreures and psychedelic science, the Agency appears to be facing a mid-life crisis and is choosing to remain on the wrong side of history with the folks who used to whack their tube televisions for better reception, because no problem is too big to solve, if you just hit it hard enough.