Kratom plant, used to help with heroin cravings, remains legal for use

DENVER – Fans of a southeast Asian plant they say can help people quit using heroin and prescription opiates are cheering the DEA’s decision to delay cracking down on the plant.

Called kratom,  leaves from the plant have long been used as both a pain reliever and stimulant in Thailand, where the tropical evergreen tree grows wild. But it’s been increasing in popularity in the United States, in part because some people use it as a replacement for prescription opiates or heroin addiction.

Alarmed by what it saw as a significant increase in reported hospitalizations and deaths connected to kratom use, the federal drug regulators in August proposed making it a Schedule 1 substance with no accepted medical use. That would have made kratom illegal to sell and buy.

Kratom users unleashed a wave of public criticism, ripping the federal government for taking action without considering the impact on the public. Now, the feds have withdrawn the proposal and are instead accepting public comments on whether kratom should be restricted. Federal officials said they’ve seen a significant increase in the number of kratom-related overdoses in the past several years, but the plant’s advocates pointed out many more legal substances are often fatal.

“I’m impressed that the people’s voice was heard,” said Jennifer Mahaney, the owner of Colorado-based Headed West smoke shops, which sells the drug. “Anything can make people sick… but the statistics they’ve provided us with, quite frankly, it’s ridiculous. I don’t think the DEA realized how many people use this.”

What is kratom?

Kratom users commonly steep the leaves for tea, stir powered leaves into a cold drink, or take the powder inside a capsule. The greenish powder smells like you’d expect ground-up leaves to smell: Earthy and pungent. Many “head” or smoke shops sell packages of the powder or capsules. In Denver, a one-ounce package costs about $15, and how much a person uses depends on their tolerance and the effect they are seeking. Store workers say different strains of the plant, generally red, green or white, offer different effects, from mild euphoria to relaxation, to stimulation much like coffee.

What's the concern?

In August, the DEA proposed adding the active ingredients of the kratom plant to the Schedule 1 list of controlled substances alongside heroin, LSD, marijuana and ecstasy. In the proposed listing, the DEA said kratom – which has been publicly available in the United States for years – posed a “imminent hazard to public safety.” Kratom users were galled that DEA agents reported it was “especially concerning” that heroin users were switching from heroin to kratom, which users say is far less addictive and dangerous.

Toxicology expert Dr. George Sam Wang of Children’s Hospital Colorado said the state’s poison control center has seen the number of kratom-related calls double from 2015 to 2016, although the numbers remain very low: Five calls last year, rising to 10 so far this year. Nationally, there were about 660 kratom-related calls to poison-control centers 2010-2015, the DEA said, up from virtually none in the five years before that. Wang said medical professionals are obligated to sound the alarm when they see trends emerging, even if the overall numbers are low.

“This stuff is not regulated – we have no idea what’s in it,” Wang said.

What's next?

Now, the DEA is accepting public comments on whether it should list kratom as schedule 1, leaving it legal under U.S. law. The agency will accept public comments until Dec. 1, and is also expecting the FDA to offer its advice before proceeding. The DEA did not return multiple messages seeking comment.

Mahaney said she’s been selling and using kratom for about seven years, mostly to help with menstrual pain but also for energy during long workdays, especially during the holiday season. She said her three stores sell kratom to about 500 customers daily, and that she gets her supply from reputable companies, although she acknowledged the plant isn't subject to the same quality-control and oversight as other drugs.

“If it was really that dangerous … if they were getting sick or getting worse, they’d be telling me,” she said. “They wouldn’t be in the store buying it again.”


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