What is kratom? And is it safe? DEA wants public input on 'natural substance'
The Drug Enforcement Administration is seeking public input on the medical uses and effects of kratom.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The Drug Enforcement Administration is seeking public input on the medical uses and effects of kratom.
The agency announced in August the product was set to be designated as a Schedule I drug. That is the DEA's most restrictive category of drugs that have the highest potential of abuse and addiction. Drugs like LSD and heroin are on this list.
But after a flood of public comments, the agency announced on Oct. 13 the ban would be put on hold. The DEA wants people to share their experiences using kratom as a medical treatment. It has also requested the FDA to speed up scientific research and provide a recommendation.
Kratom comes from crushed-up leaves of a tree native to Southeast Asia. It is similar to the coffee plant. The powder is used in capsules, drinks, or food, and it is popular for anyone coping with chronic pain or trying to stop abusing opioids or alcohol.
"It's definitely not a drug," said Chad Wade, the owner of Up-N-Smoke. "It's definitely a natural substance. It's definitely something that's helping the community."
At Up-N-Smoke, kratom sells for $20-$30 per ounce. One ounce will allow for three to four doses. Wade makes it very clear his shop does not advertise kratom as a pain reliever, because he can't make claims for the FDA -- but he said he can tell the difference it makes in his customers' lives.
"If you're high, you're in an alternate reality, an alternate situation in your brain," said Wade as he explained the difference between kratom and mind-altering drugs. "With this [kratom], they're able to go to work. They're able to drive their car. They're able to deal with their children. They're able to deal with the day-to-day operations with life. They don't feel anything. They just don't feel the pain. They feel normal."
But Dr. Erika Ruth, an addiction psychiatrist with the University of Louisville, said there are dangers and concerns with kratom.
"I would say this is a natural product in the same way I would say that the poppy plant creating heroin is a natural product," said Ruth.
Based on DEA documents, one of the main active ingredients in kratom is mitragynine. According to Ruth, some of the ingredients in kratom bind to some of the same receptors in the brain as opioids.
"It hits the opiate receptor," said Ruth, speakong of kratom. "It does cause dependence. What they have found is there is addiction properties, and it does cause opiate dependence. There are withdrawal symptoms that are just like heroin, but on a much less scale."
Wade disagrees and says research does not show kratom has any addictive properties. He explained depending on how much someone takes, kratom can help stimulate or relax someone.
"Anytime somebody wants to stop using this [kratom], they just stop using it," said Wade. "Whereas with chemicals, there's a back-down period. There's a withdrawal period. They don't have that problem with this [kratom]."
But there is still a lot of mystery about what's in the natural product and what it can do. As part of the public input period, the DEA is also requesting the FDA do more research on the product.
"I think that there is the potential for medicinal value in this," said Ruth. "There is the possibility this can greatly help with opiate withdrawal, with cravings, something to keep people from relapsing. The difficulty becomes, is it going to be regulated?"
Ruth said she hopes this public input period leads to more research so that kratom can be useful. But she also said that, given its similarity to oxycodone and methadone, banning the product might be a good idea.
Wade would not say how much kratom his stores sell, but he said it's enough to tell it's helping a large portion of the community. His kratom customers range from people recovering from drug addictions to people with chronic pain. And he said those with pain come from every walk of life, including those with careers ranging from doctors to public officials. Wade believes scheduling kratom could lead to more people turning to dangerous substances.
"I think you'll see more pain meds being sold," warned Wade. "I think you'll see more people strung out on pain meds. I think you'll see the heroin addiction go right back through the roof."
Wade said the DEA is attributing 15 deaths since 2014 to kratom. He also said if the product is banned by the agency, he will no longer sell it.
The public comment period is open until Dec. 1. For your opinions to be considered, you must make an electronic or paper comment.
The American Kratom Association also has directions on how to make sure your comments are considered.
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