Every year it seems, we hear about a “new drug on the scene,” a modification of an already-in-use substance or a completely brand new drug that is taking the nation by storm. Recently, all of the buzz has been about “kratom,” a drug that is possibly one of the most controversial and misunderstood substances of the 21st century. Some praise the drug. Some defame it and criminalize it. We’ll see what the two sides are saying about kratom in this article.
Just to learn what kratom is will take studying two sides of a very contentious argument. For example, the Food and Drug Administration released a research report in February 2018 that labeled kratom as having “opioid properties” in it. The FDA associated the new drug with forty-four deaths that had occurred in the few months preceding the research.
According to FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb:
Gottlieb went on to discuss the deaths that kratom was implicated in causing, saying that:
Kratom is a substance that is imported from Southeast Asia. It is marketed as a supplement. The substance has soared in popularity amongst individuals who are seeking relief from opioid withdrawals, which indicates that kratom has opioid properties. People also buy kratom to relieve pain (another indicator of opioids) and to relieve anxiety, depression, and high-strung nerves. Kratom produces a feeling of euphoria when taken.
The supporters of kratom shout from the rooftops that kratom is safe, that it helps to relieve pain and other, unwanted symptoms, and that it is a way to even curb cravings for other harmful drugs. The FDA and DEA disagree with those who would support kratom.
But still, the DEA is on the fence about whether or not to classify kratom as a scheduled drug or not. The DEA tried to place kratom in a Schedule I classification awhile back, which would lump it into the same category of drugs as heroin, but public outcry and some pressure from Congress forced the DEA to hold off. According to DEA representatives, they need, “more information to make an informed decision on kratom.”
But the FDA, the government body in charge of garnering and presenting that exact information, feels that they have done research and that the death toll associated with kratom, “Reinforces our concerns,” in the words of FDA Commissioner Dr. Gottlieb himself.
So we can see that, not only are the benefits and negative effects of kratom heatedly argued, but different governmental bodies argue about the drug amongst themselves. It seems like no one is ready or willing to make a decision about kratom.
Why wait until kratom kills another forty-four (or forty-four hundred or forty-four thousand) people? The FDA ran more tests and put kratom through a computational model to determine the effects of the drug on the human brain. The FDA analyzed the twenty-five common, relevant compounds found in kratom. From their research, they found that all of the active ingredients in kratom act on opioid receptors in the brain in the same way that opioid painkillers and heroin do. In short, we don’t know yet if kratom is an opioid, but we know that kratom has the exact same effects that opioids do.
And since opioids are highly dangerous, yes, kratom is dangerous too.
The FDA has made up its mind on kratom, and now we are just waiting on the DEA to make a decision in what they will do with the drug and how they will classify it. The risks attendant with the drug are extremely clear though, so now it’s just a matter for the bureaucratic hodgepodge and political complications of scheduling a drug to run their course.
In spite of the FDA findings, there are still those who support kratom. According to Jack Henningfield, an addiction specialist and drug policy consultant at Pinney Associates:
Henningfield estimates that somewhere between three million and five million people in the United States have used kratom before or are currently using it. He estimates that many of those three to five million are using kratom ethically to come down off of and stay abstinent from other, more harmful opioids.
Ultimately, the DEA and their Congressional overseers are going to have to examine all of the information at hand. However, given the FDA’s findings, it is likely the DEA will end up scheduling the drug as a Schedule I drug, for better or for worse.
In the grander picture of things, kratom has harmful side effects. For that reason alone, the drug should be highly monitored at least, if not fully outlawed. But in that same logic, prescription drugs should be more strictly and conservatively used and monitored, as they too have negative side effects. It’s a messy situation, to say the least.