Over the Thanksgiving a couple of ads for an herb called kratom caught my eye. I had never heard of it. Kratom is a tropical tree in Southeast Asia. It's leaves can be eaten raw, but more often they're crushed and brewed in tea or turned into capsules. The tree has been used in local cultures for hundreds of years to relieve pain.
As it turns out, you can now buy kratom online from a host of vendors. You can even find it in vending machines in at least one restaurant in the University of Arizona area.
But in 2016, the Drug Enforcement Agency rushed to ban its sale -- initially marking September 30, 2016 as the date it would make kratom a Schedule 1 drug, in the same class as heroin, LSD, ecstasy, and marijuana. In releasing it's intent, the DEA called kratom "an imminent hazard to public safety."
The DEA's action proves the adage that there's no such thing as bad publicity. In the wake of a call to ban, kratom's profile skyrocketed. In response to an outcry from the public -- including many members of Congress -- the DEA has withdrawn its intent to make kratom a Schedule 1 drug and established a comment period that runs through December 1, 2017.
What is Kratom?
"Medicinal" kratom is derived from the leaves of the kratom tree. Proponents say that the leaves offer relief from pain, depression, and anxiety. Scientists working with it are exploring its capacity to mange chronic pain and lower the toll of opiate addiction. In low doses, kratom acts as a stimulant. In large amounts it acts as a sedative. The DEA says it can lead to psychotic symptoms and psychological addiction. The agency reports 15 kratom related deaths between 2014-2016.
Mice studies show that kratom targets a part of the brain that responds to drugs like morphine, codeine, and fentanyl -- all opioids. Those studies also suggest that the herb does not subject users to some of the negative side effects of those drugs. Researchers are very quick to point out that kratom is still relatively unstudied. Even the authors of the most promising kratom research caution that the drug -- while promising -- needs to be studied in a more controlled way before definitive conclusions can be reached.
Anecdotal reports suggest that kratom is less addictive than opioids. But it has been banned in several Southeast Asian countries because of addiction concerns. Proponents argue that it makes no sense to go from no regulation to a complete ban without exploring a middle ground. So that is where things currently stand.
Kratom remains available over the counter and over the internet as an unregulated, untested herbal supplement. There is no oversight to regulate the quality or content of what you purchase. And there is little peer reviewed research on its proven benefits.
I suspect now that kratom has been the subject of a possible ban, its profile will continue to rise. Be careful and know what is out there.