The Drug Enforcement Agency has announced plans to make an herbal drug that could potentially help recovering opiate addicts illegal in the United States.
Kratom, an plant native to southeast Asia, activates the same brain receptors as opioids that relieve chronic pain, but anecdotal evidence has found the plant to have fewer side effects and less addictive qualities than its prescription cousins. It’s commonly purchased from smoke shops or online providers without any federal regulation.
But now, the DEA is placing it under the most restrictive category of controlled substances, Schedule I.
Decades of anecdotal evidence have found that some people have successfully used kratom in the place of hydrocodone or methadone, popular drugs used by doctors to treat opioid addiction. Other stories of kratom addiction, however, paint a different, darker picture.
“With no accepted medical use, the abuse of kratom…poses an imminent hazard to the public safety.”
The problem lies in the significant lack of scientific research on the drug itself, something that the DEA pointed to in its August 25 announcement.
“ Distributors of kratom are knowingly putting the public at risk. Unknown factors…present a significant danger to an abusing individual,” it reads. “With no accepted medical use, the abuse of kratom…poses an imminent hazard to the public safety.”
Ironically, however, by dubbing kratom a Schedule I drug, the DEA will make future research of the plant nearly impossible.
In its report, the DEA did cite data from poison control centers linked to kratom abuse — but critics say the numbers are dwarfed by the number of calls poison control receives about other legal and illegal substances.
One thing is certain: Like any drug, kratom has the potential to be both harmful and beneficial to users. That’s why researchers believe access to research is so important.
“With anything, there are dangers of using too much,” wrote Walter Prozialeck, a professor of pharmacology at Midwestern University, in a 2012 study on kratom. “But the amount that a person has to take in to get any severe effects is ridiculously high.”
“After researching the literature, I found that were more positive aspects to kratom than there were negative,” his study concluded. “Additional studies are needed to explore potential benefits of kratom.”
This decision to criminalize kratom comes weeks after the DEA announced it would continue to keep marijuana on the Schedule I list. It also promised easier access to researching cannabis — but most researchers say it won’t change the current barriers in place.