On August 31, the US Drug Enforcement Administration filed a notice of intent to place kratom on its Schedule 1 classification, effectively outlawing the drug by placing it in the same category as heroin, crystal meth, and marijuana (but not cocaine, PCP, and fentanyl). Under the terms of the Controlled Substances Act, a Schedule 1 drug is defined as a substance with a high potential for abuse and no medical applications; in its report, the DEA claims that kratom (more specifically its active alkaloids, mitragynine and its derivative, 7-hydroxymitragynine) “pose an imminent hazard to public safety.”
So what is kratom? Well, it’s a tropical evergreen tree (part of the coffee family) native to Southeast Asia (specifically Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia and Paupa New Guinea), where it’s been used for centuries as a medicinal herb for its pain-killing and mood-improving effects – traditional users say that its leaves are chewed to relieve muscle pain and increase energy, appetite and sexual desire, and extracts are used to heal wounds and as a local anaesthetic. It can also be consumed in capsules, or in powder or liquid form, and is said to produce effects similar to opiates, since its active ingredients bind to opioid receptors in the central nervous system, with effects typically lasting from 2-5 hours after an onset time of 5-10 minutes. However, unlike other opioids such as heroin, fentanyl and oxycodone, kratom has been shown in lab tests with rodents to be non-addictive and produce none of the behavioral side-effects normally associated with those narcotics – because of this, some addicts say it makes for a useful tool in helping with their attempts to get clean, since it prevents them from experiencing withdrawal symptoms without reinforcing their physical dependencies.
So why has the DEA decided to schedule kratom? Well, for starters side-effects are reported to include itchiness, vomiting, constipation, high heart rate and blood pressure, and trouble sleeping. One of the active ingredients, 7-hydroxymitragynine, has also been shown in studies to be a stronger painkiller than morphine, and thus potentially dangerous in high amounts, possibly inducing respiratory depression, seizures and psychosis – however it is unclear if these levels could be reached recreationally. The DEA report cited several reported cases of negative health effects, including several deaths, resulting from kratom use, though the evidence in these incidents isn’t particularly strong – for example, one death of a 17-year old heroin addict who was reported to have used kratom, but whose death is not directly blamed on the plant – instead the report says the teen died from “possible kratom toxicity.”
The decision to schedule kratom has been met with public backlash, with many claiming that the decision was made in haste as a response to growing public concern about the drug. In an email, a representative from the DEA said that the move was only intended to give scientists time to study kratom’s effects, rather than permanently ban it – however, history has shown that once a drug is subjected to the Schedule 1 classification, it becomes much more difficult to effectively study it (see marijuana, for one notable example), and very few drugs ever make it off the list once they’re classified.
There is clearly a need for further study, but criminalizing the users and limiting the ability of scientists to come to objective conclusions in the face of such scrutiny is not the answer, in this writer’s opinion at least – one need only look at the list of controlled substances to get the idea that perhaps this move was made so that synthetic pharmaceutical opioids such as oxycodone and methadone would not suffer competition from a less-marketable source.