Around four years ago, Kitsap County resident Erica Thomas became addicted to OxyContin after a doctor prescribed the drug to her during a visit to the emergency room.
She eventually sought help, and doctors prescribed Thomas, now 22, methadone to help fight the addiction. But methadone is itself addictive and it didn’t help, she said.
Then, around two years ago, Thomas discovered kratom.
Kratom is the leaf of Mitragyna speciosa, a tree native to Southeast Asia that — though it doesn’t have any approved medical uses — can manage chronic pain and cure addiction to heroin and prescription opioids, according to the plant’s adherents. In small doses, the plant acts as a stimulant, and in high doses, it acts as a sedative.
Despite many people’s anecdotal claims that kratom has freed them from opioid addiction or alleviated their chronic pain, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) plans to ban the drug, placing it in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act – the federal government’s most restrictive schedule and one kratom will share with MDMA, heroin, bath salts and, as ridiculous as it sounds, marijuana. The agency also decided to purposefully forgo public comment before instating the ban.
The ban was originally slated to go into effect as early as today, Heavy.com reported yesterday that, while the DEA still plans to ban kratom, the ban will be enacted at a later date.
“I don’t have a timetable,” DEA spokesman Rusty Payne told the Pain News Network. “It could be this week, could be in the future, I just don’t know.”
The DEA says drugs placed in Schedule I have a high potential for abuse, have no currently accepted medical use, and are unsafe to use under medical supervision. Marijuana activists have been questioning the veracity of the schedule for years. Just weeks before the DEA announced it planned to add kratom to the schedule, the agency announced it would keep marijuana a Schedule I drug – meaning it has “no currently accepted medical use,” even though half of the states in the U.S. have legalized marijuana for medicinal use.
The DEA cites increased complaints about kratom to poison control centers, and a small number of deaths in which kratom was implicated – but never found to be the cause of death – as evidence that it poses an imminent hazard to the public, and should be banned.
But proponents of the drug insist kratom is safe and that the DEA is twisting facts to make kratom appear more dangerous than it really is. And whatever minor side effects there may be, they say, the benefits far outweigh any risks.
Though the evidence is largely anecdotal, scores of people echo Thomas’s claim that kratom has life-changing medical uses. And while the DEA has acknowledged the anecdotal reports it’s received since announcing the ban, it has made no move to back down.
‘It Completely Changed My Life’
When Thomas first heard of kratom, she didn’t know much about it. “I never really knew what its affects were or anything, so I didn’t really want to give it a try,” she said.
But as she researched the drug online and read how it’s used to heal a host of ailments, including opioid addiction, she decided to give it a try after all.
“I start taking it and I realize, I’m not having cravings,” she said. “I’m not having the withdrawals. It completely eradicated any withdrawal symptoms whatsoever. Not only that, but I could function and I could work and do my school work. It was amazing. It completely changed my life. It completely changed my life.”
While it’s not known exactly how kratom works on the brain, the plant contains a number of alkaloids, including mitragynine, which is believed to cause most of its effects. Mitragynine is an opioid agonist, and is attracted to the opioid receptors in the brain, but delivers effects and side effects less powerful than more common opiates.
Since using kratom, Thomas hasn’t touched opiates, and in fact, she has become something of a kratom disciple, singing its praises to family members and friends who were also struggling with addiction.
“My family members and my friends started taking it and it just changed all of our lives all at the same time,” she said. “It’s really crazy. That’s why I’m so hurt to find out that the DEA would just ban it.”
One of the people who benefitted most from Thomas’s proselyting was her mother, Nicole, who has rheumatoid arthritis and, possibly, stomach lupus (which is difficult to diagnose with certainty, she said).
The conditions come with chronic pain, for which doctors prescribed Percocet, an opioid. But opioids are problematic for her: They make her nauseated; she experiences withdrawal symptoms each month when her prescription runs out; and more than once, she’s even accidentally overdosed on them, she said.
Nicole hasn’t been able to completely eliminate her opioid use, but kratom has allowed her to reduce the amount of opiates she needs to manage her pain, and helps her manage her depression, she said.
“It relieves my pain and gives me opioid-like effects when I take it, but without the side effects of addiction or withdrawals,” she said.
Nicole said she thinks it’s terrible that the DEA is banning kratom.
“I don’t understand it,” she said. “From what I’ve studied and talked to people and seen and felt, it’s done nothing but good for people. I don’t know where this is all coming from. It’s definitely helped people with addictions to heroin and other opioids and helped people come off those drugs. And as far as I know, it’s completely safe – definitely a lot safer than heroin and opioids are.”
“I’ve seen how it helps my daughter and it’s been … life-saving,” she added. “She was down a pretty dark path of opioid dependence and it’s night and day with her. She’s feeling release from the kratom for her issues and not going broke trying to buy opioids and also all the harmful side effects that go with those. It’s been a complete miracle.”
Kings of Kratom
Tim Mitchell, 37, and his wife Rozalynn Mitchell, 38, may be the largest kratom distributors in Kitsap County.
The couple has run a head shop in Tacoma since the late ‘90s, and a little more than three years ago, Tim began receiving samples of kratom in the mail from distributors. He tried it for himself and, to his surprise, found that it relieved the pain of an old back injury better than the high-CBD marijuana he’d used previously, and without the mental haze associated with marijuana.
Rozalynn, who said she has never taken any drugs except for kratom (which she doesn’t consider a drug, preferring to call it a supplement instead) used the plant to manage pain during childbirth.
The couple formed Kratom Kings, a company that imports kratom and sells it through the Mitchell’s head shops in Tacoma and Bremerton, and through a handful of third-party retailers.
The Mitchells say they’re less concerned about what the ban would mean for their business than what it would mean for their customers. Many of their customers use kratom to stave off opiate cravings, and the couple is fearful they will relapse en masse if they’re unable to obtain kratom.
The Mitchells estimate they’re helping more than 1,000 people – perhaps even a couple thousand – with addiction or chronic pain management. Their customers range from as old as 70 to as young as 20.
“I looked at it like I was helping people, taking people off of all this synthetic garbage and pills,” Tim said.
“We’ve gotten people off of heroin, we’ve gotten people off of Suboxone (a medication for treating opioid addiction), we’ve gotten people off of Percocet,” Rozalynn added. “And they’re so scared that they’re going to turn back to that once kratom’s gone.”
A pastor came into the couple’s store asking about kratom. His son had been addicted to heroin for years and relapsed twice, he said, according to the Mitchells.
“We got his son off of heroin in a month” with kratom, Rozalynn said. “And he’s been clean since.”
The couple isn’t opposed to the government regulating kratom, they say. Tim said he’d welcome regulations that would ensure the kratom that customers buy is pure and not laced with other substances. But prohibiting kratom completely will do more harm than good, they argue.
“They can’t take this away from the people that are using it for the pain and using it to stay off of the synthetics and stuff like that,” Rozalynn said. “It’s just wrong, and all of our customers are panicking, because they’re like, ‘I don’t want to go back to the heroin,’ or, ‘I don’t want to take the OxyConton anymore.’”
While they’re hoping for a last-minute miracle, such as the DEA completely reversing its decision, the Mitchells say they’re also looking into alternative products that may help opioid addicts.
The ban would have a local economic impact as well.
Kratom sales account for about half of the couple’s business, with the other half coming from the sale of pipes and other accessories at their head shops. With kratom banned, they will likely have to lay off three of their six full-time employees.
Behind the Ban
Thomas says she thinks the DEA’s ban is motivated by money. If people are using kratom to wean themselves off addictive drugs, then people aren’t buying prescription medications that make pharmaceutical companies loads of cash, the argument goes.
Some critics have pointed out that the pharmaceutical industry is using kratom alkaloids to manufacture synthetic opioids, and speculate that the DEA’s ban is meant to help pharmaceutical companies create a monopoly. It’s sounds like a conspiracy theory, and perhaps it is a bit hyperbolic, but given that the DEA had a chance to reclassify marijuana – another all-natural drug that competes with costly pharmaceutical painkillers – it doesn’t seem prudent to discount the criticism altogether.
The DEA cites an imminent hazard to the public as its primary reason for banning kratom.
In making its case against kratom, the DEA says there were 15 Kratom-related deaths in the U.S. between 2014 and 2016.
But by contrast, more than 4,000 people in the U.S. died from methadone poisoning in 2011. Despite that, methadone is legal. But kratom won’t be for long.
Additionally, none of those deaths were caused by kratom alone, but rather from other substances mixed with kratom.
The DEA also points out that kratom-related calls to poison control centers shot from two calls between 2000 and 2005, to 660 calls between 2010 and 2015. That sounds like a big number. But, as Forbes points out, just in the first seven months of 2016, there were 6,843 calls to poison control centers of young children ingesting single-load laundry pods – and those, of course, are not illegal.
The DEA also lists kratom’s potential side effects in its case against the drug, which it says can include agitation, irritability, tachycardia, nausea, drowsiness, and hypertension. It also lists health risks found in “kratom abusers,” including hepatotoxicity, psychosis, seizure, weight loss, insomnia, tachycardia, vomiting, poor concentration, hallucinations, and death (see the previous paragraph regarding so-called kratom deaths).
The DEA isn’t the only organization speaking out against Kratom. The substance has its fair share of critics, particularly amongst anti-drug organizations.
Drugabuse.org says kratom is “a substance that should not be taken lightly.”
“While it may have proven helpful in a handful of cases, for the vast majority, it’s proving to be nothing more than an exchange of one addictive habit for another,” the website states.
To be sure, some kratom users believe they are addicted to the plant, as evidenced by the subreddit /r/quittingkratom.
Erica Thomas said while there’s some addictive potential with kratom, in her experience, it isn’t addictive.
“Based on my experience, I’m not addicted to kratom,” she said. “I will go weeks without it, and I’m fine. And then I’ll take it and I’m fine.”
Rozalynn Mitchell, and many other proponents of kratom, dispute that the plant is addictive or at the very least claim that it’s far less addictive than heroin or prescription painkillers.
“People will say, ‘Gosh, I didn’t take my kratom for like three days, and I feel great,’” she said. “It’s related to the coffee plant. Are they going to ban coffee?”
The DEA has received tons of feedback since announcing its intention to ban kratom.
A petition to the White House asking President Barack Obama to reconsider the ban garnered more than 140,000 signatures since Aug. 30, well over the 100,000 signatures needed to prompt the president to respond.
Even lawmakers are asking the DEA to reconsider. Recently, 51 lawmakers signed a letter to the DEA urging them to reconsider the ban, stating that doing so would hinder research into kratom and make it harder for people to fight opioid addictions.
That’s one of the biggest catches to the whole debacle; the DEA cites a lack of research into kratom’s effectiveness for medical uses as a reason to ban it, yet by banning kratom, scientists will have far fewer opportunities to study it. It’s the same problem that has stymied scientists trying to study marijuana.
“If we could get the people to really do the research, get the government on board to find out what this tree can do, what this plant can do, I think there’s a lot more to it,” Tim Mitchell said. “I think we’ve only scratched the surface … I think we could get most people in the United States off of drugs and prescription pills.”
Erica Thomas said she thinks addiction and overdose deaths may double or even triple in the United States if kratom is banned.
“I wish that there weren’t this fear-mongering around this natural plant,” she said. “It hurts to live in a country where the people who are in charge are using fear to take control and to just be afraid of everything.”
Steven Wyble is an award-winning journalist who has written for both daily and weekly newspapers.