The FDA is considering a ban on Kratom, the latest substance to become the target of fearmongering PSA-like headlines that edge toward the seemingly inevitable crosshairs of America’s never-ending drug war. However, kratom’s supposed status as the new threat to public safety depends largely on who you ask, with advocates alleging that kratom might be an antidote, not a culprit in America’s ongoing opioid epidemic.
Mitragyna speciosa, or kratom, is a coffee-like tree that can be found growing naturally in Southeast Asia. Often found both in protected land growing wild, and in smaller quantities grown deliberately by individuals, this plant has been a part of the culture of nations like Thailand and Malaysia for generations.
The plant contains a variety of alkaloids, which are a naturally occurring family of substances which range widely in potency and effect. For example, the energy and buzz you get from your morning coffee are caused by caffeine, which is classified as an alkaloid. However, the sedative effects of morphine and the toxicity of strychnine are also brought about, at least in part, by alkaloids.
The question then is, exactly where on this spectrum does kratom fall? If you ask the FDA, they will likely point you in the direction of the negative effects that have been reported on recently. For the first time in history, the FDA issued a mandatory recall of certain kratom products due to the possible presence of Salmonella. News stories abound about deaths linked to this strange and scary new substance, which is being called an opiate (like heroin and oxycontin).
But, is it really new? No, and neither is the persecution of the plant that some advocates think could hold the key to ending the opioid epidemic.
In 1943, the Thai government was under the rule of fascist leader Plaek Pibulsonggram, and a large part of the money funding the government stemmed from the opium trade. When it was discovered that farmers and commoners were using naturally occurring and tax-free kratom instead of the opiates peddled by the government, the substance was made illegal. Since then, kratom has been banned or controlled in twelve nations across the world, as well as in all or part of ten U.S. states.
Critics of the plant say it has addictive properties similar to other opiates and has resulted in the death of some users, including one Florida resident in December of 2017 where the cause of death was reported as “mitragynine toxicity” (mitragynine being the predominant alkaloid in kratom). Supporters say that these reports don’t even come close to telling the whole story.
In a sort of tell-all documentary on the history and chemistry of kratom, Viceland’s Hamilton Morris spoke with researchers and users who explained how the substance is undeserving of the frightening comparisons to heroin or fentanyl being made by misinformed media members and lawmakers. According to studies cited in the episode of Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia, kratom does not activate the parts of the brain associated with opiate addiction in mice.
Additionally, the levels of toxicity (although different for every person) seem to be relatively low in the experience of those who rely upon it to power them through mental and physical work or use it as a sort of natural methadone to wean themselves off more dangerous substances. In the case of the Florida man whose death was attributed to a kratom overdose, toxicology reports also showed the presence of prescription pills, alcohol, and caffeine in his system. Coupled with an “inconclusive” result from a test for synthetic opiates, the true reason for the man’s death gets even cloudier.
Finding a causal link between kratom and these reported deaths is a topic of controversy, especially for those who see the plant as a golden opportunity to end America’s struggle with addiction. According to a report by Jane Babin, a graduate of both Purdue University and the San Diego School of Law (where kratom was made illegal by a local ordinance), the FDA’s handling of any death in which kratom was detected in toxicology reports is nothing short of fear-mongering, and only serves to conceal the truth in a shroud of panic.
It is understandable for a government organization to withhold judgment on a substance with known psychoactive properties until science catches up with public opinion. However, declaring something like kratom a deadly poison without any real knowledge of the subject completely overlooks the countless people being helped by it on a daily basis.
So how are citizens using kratom to combat ailments from addiction to depression to chronic pain? It’s more complex than the government or media may lead you to believe.
Kratom exists in multiple forms and strains, but it boils down to three basic types available to the general public: green, red, and white. Coming from different parts of the kratom leaf, and harvested at different levels of maturity, each strain has a unique blend of alkaloids that act differently on the human body.
The different strains are mixed and ingested uniquely based on the desired effect of the user and can be either a sedative or stimulant. In general, green strains like “Maeng Da” (which translates loosely to “the pimp”) are what most people find in tobacco shops or gas station convenience stores, and have the largest psychoactive effects. Red strains are used predominantly by those with chronic pain or physical ailments, and it has little effect on the mental state of the user. White strains, arguably the least common, are considered focus aids, among other uses.
We can’t ignore the fact that kratom has legitimate potential as a helpful supplement when used correctly. Despite the overwhelming evidence to support this, governments (for one reason or another) seem to be taking an all-or-nothing approach to managing kratom. Either it’s a dangerous street drug that needs to be outlawed, or it’s a herb that exists completely unfettered by regulations of any kind.
Saying that anything with legitimate pharmaceutical and recreational use potential should be completely unregulated is an uber-libertarian standpoint that has its legitimate pitfalls. However, bills like the one currently under consideration in New Jersey, which would make an ounce of kratom (which is a fraction of what most users have in their kitchen cabinets) punishable by up to ten years of imprisonment, are frankly ridiculous and should be laughed out of every room they enter.
Staunch oppositional legislators have fallen into the stereotype of the out-of-touch elder statesman, lapped by the advance of science and technology and relegated to shaking their bony fingers at anything they don’t understand. These lawmakers have a choice to make – they can’t, on the one hand, denounce the repulsive explosion of opiate addiction and overdose, and on the other blindly ban something with a legitimate chance to help just because all the facts aren’t known yet.
One potential solution is to take cues from Oregon, where kratom is legal but under a specifically commissioned study, or Minnesota, where regulations make it legal only for those over the age of 18. Kratom is emblematic of a lesson we have refused to learn over and over again in America: a lack of knowledge or study of a drug, further exacerbated by an outright ban has yet to produce the compelling case study for improved public safety.