If you’ve been following health news lately, you may have heard the incredible buzz online surrounding a humble Southeast Asian herb called Mitragyna speciosa — or as it’s more commonly known, kratom.
The DEA made waves earlier this month by announcing, with no prior warning, that they would be classifying kratom (a currently legal and unregulated substance) as a Schedule 1 drug by the end of September. Remember, Schedule 1 is reserved for substances that the DEA asserts pose a serious threat to public health and possess no medicinal value, such as heroin, LSD, and MDMA.
“Kratom” is the nickname for Mitragyna speciosa, an evergreen tree that is in the coffee family. For centuries, it has been used in traditional medicine throughout Thailand, Indonesia, and other parts of Asia. Some people crush the leaves and drink the pieces with water; others use the leaves to brew tea; and others turn the dried leaves into powders that they can take in a capsule.
No matter how they take it, the results are the same: at low doses, kratom provides a mild stimulant effect. At higher doses, it can actually provide a mild to moderate calming and analgesic (pain-relieving) effect.
Those who fall on the prohibition side of kratom use have used language to describe it as “legal heroin.” As we’ll see in a moment, this is a vast exaggeration and oversimplification of the biological processes behind kratom consumption.
One of the most common uses for kratom in the United States has been as an alternative medicine for people withdrawing from opioids such as heroin or oxycodone. This is because the active ingredient in kratom, mitragynine, binds to some of the same receptors in the brain as opioids. However, while opioids such as heroin bind to the brain’s Mu opioid receptor, one of the most powerful pleasure/reward centers in the brain, mitragynine prefers the more modest Delta receptor. This may explain why kratom is so helpful as a stepping stone for many former opiate addicts to withdraw from their drug of abuse. It may also explain why an official whitehouse.gov petition to stop the kratom ban has gained over 130,000 signatures already.
One key difference between kratom and other opioids is that kratom has not been shown to result in respiratory depression at high doses — one of the deadliest side effects of opioids like heroin and morphine.
Good question! It’s unclear why the DEA has suddenly cracked down so strongly on kratom, a substance with almost no attributable deaths directly linked to it. While 15 deaths have been linked to kratom in the last two years, 14 of those cases involved another substance in the person’s system, and many had pre-existing health conditions.
If the DEA succeeds in scheduling kratom amongst society’s most harmful drugs, they will have 3 years to convince the FDA to keep it scheduled there; otherwise, the decision will be reversed.
Urgent 9 founder Dr. Manuel Momjian is familiar with the research and news surrounding kratom, and he is fascinated by these recent developments. “I’m really not sure why the FDA is cracking down on herbs while the state governments are doing the opposite and legalizing cannabis,” Dr. Momjian offered when asked about kratom. “Are we going to throw kratom users into jail because they are trying to get off of stronger opioids? This seems silly.”
These comments refer to the harsh penalties that come along with possession of a Schedule 1 drug in the United States. Kratom users do not appear to be people you would think of as felons — they are typically ordinary citizens who are using this plant as a way to withdraw from opioids or receive a mild calming effect in a tea.
“Caffeine in high doses can be very dangerous and also has no medical benefit,” Dr. Momjian continued. “Are we going to make coffee Schedule 1 as well?”
It’s a point that could be made about other popular novelty herbs such as Kava Kava, and the argument could even be extended to legal substances such as alcohol. For now, it seems that kratom is just the latest issue on which the DEA and FDA are out of touch with the realities of everyday Americans.
“The FDA needs to find another way to regulate these types of [things] without making everything illegal,” Dr. Momjian concluded.