Federal Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb recently released a statement expressing concerns over the dangerous public health effects of the herb commonly known as kratom, the dried and ground leaves of the Mitragyna speciosa tree native to parts of Southeastern Asia. The herb is currently legal and sold as a dietary supplement and is usually consumed in powder form mixed in beverages or ingested via capsule.
Just How Harmful is This Plant?
The plant made news after the Drug Enforcement Administration announced last year its intention to move the substance to Schedule I, the most severely restricted category on the federal government’s controlled substance list. It would join the ranks of heroin, lysergic, acid diethylamide (LSD), marijuana (cannabis), and ecstasy. After public outcry generated significant pressure, the DEA backed off. Melvin Patterson, a spokesman for the DEA stated, “I have been with the DEA for 20 years and have never seen this level of public response.”
The plant has been used to halt the body’s opioid withdrawal response safely since 1836. Over the past year, government discussion on the substance has remained fairly quiet. Only six states have instituted restrictions on the substance through legislative action. Only one state, North Carolina, voted down a blanket prohibition and instead simply made the substance illegal to those under 18 years old.
Among its many uses, kratom is most widely known for two: an affordable and effective alternative to pain medications, and treatment for opioid addiction. In fact, the plant has been used to halt the body’s opioid withdrawal response safely since 1836. Despite being used to treat addiction, the plant does not get the user high but instead satisfies the addict’s opioid receptors leaving only a mild feeling of euphoria, often compared to a strong cup of coffee. Users report improved mood, a mild sense of euphoria, and often life-changing pain relief without the negative effects of long-term NSAID use. Kratom has no psychoactive effects and no physical dependency – it’s just a harmless plant.
Despite being an overwhelmingly better alternative to opioids, the DEA, FDA, and CDC continue to propagate kratom as dangerous. They’re wrong.
These government agencies most often cite a report released by the CDC stating that between 2010 and 2015, U.S. Poison Centers received 660 reports of exposure to kratom. That translates to roughly one every three days across the entire U.S.
In this five-year period, only one death was reported after an individual consumed a concoction of medications, including kratom. Of these instances, 24.5 percent were reported as minor (with minimal symptoms which rapidly resolved with no residual disability), 41.7 percent were reported as moderate (non-life-threatening and no residual disability with some form of treatment), and only 7.4 percent were reported as major (life-threatening symptoms with some residual disability).
In this five-year period, only one death was reported after an individual consumed a concoction consisting of a serious antidepressant, an anticonvulsant medication, and a dose of kratom all at once. Given that approximately 100,000 deaths related to adverse medical reactions occur in the U.S. each year, kratom is hardly as dangerous as many other substances in the marketplace.
Addicted to Power
So why are government bureaucrats waging a war on kratom only one year after the public definitively spoke out against their efforts?
It’s because the government has a substance problem of their own – an insatiable addiction to banning substances.
The public no longer buys into the notion that these substance bans are for the health and safety of the American people. The changes in marijuana policy across the nation are the most notable example of this, with 29 states now legalizing some form of cannabis. Marijuana did not change since it was initially banned in 1911, but over time information regarding marijuana’s medical benefits, it’s potential dangers, and social acceptability evolved. Even regarding harder drugs that pose serious problems, an unprecedented number of Americans now question the effectiveness of prohibition and are more receptive than ever before to alternative solutions to these real problems. The fight to keep kratom legal is a moral and scientific fight for good public policy.
The fight to keep kratom legal is a moral and scientific fight for good public policy. Kratom is a natural, harmless substance that has been legal in the U.S. for years with virtually no problems. However, the federal government – that continues to ban marijuana and hundreds of other substances – now wants to add kratom to the list.
Perhaps the worst part about the potential ban of this substance is the millions of opioid addicts who would be deprived of an effective, affordable, and safe component toward full recovery. The government has a substance problem and it's time for an intervention.