Is it a potentially dangerous opioid that needs to be regulated as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has argued, OR is it a misunderstood natural product that provides people struggling with addiction or people in pain an alternative to opioids, a point of view asserted by a number of scientists who've studied kratom?
What is Kratom?
Kratom is a tropical tree (Mitragyna speciosa) native to Southeast Asia. Its bitter leaves, containing psychoactive opioid-like compounds, are consumed for their mood-altering effects, pain relief and as an aphrodisiac. People chew it, smoke it, brew it or add it to food. It goes by many names that include: herbal speedball, biak-biak, ketum, kahuam, ithang or thom.
Though Thai people have been chewing Kratom leaves or sipping it in their tea for at least two hundred years, it was outlawed by the government during the Greater East Asia War in 1943. In the last ten years, Kratom has made its way to the United States, and can be purchased as a green powder, in capsules, or as an extract or gum at gas stations, tobacco shops, health stores and even at some juice bars and of course online. Most people however take kratom as a pill, capsule, or extract. Some people prefer to chew kratom leaves or brew the dried or powdered leaves as a tea as the Thai have been doing for centuries. Sometimes the leaves are smoked or even eaten in food.
Taking Kratom to treat addiction
People have used kratom in small amounts to reduce fatigue or treat opium addiction. In other parts of the world, people take kratom to ease withdrawal, feel more energetic, relieve pain, or reduce anxiety or depression. People take kratom to ease withdrawal because kratom evokes feelings of euphoria and may be obtained more easily than drugs prescribed for withdrawal.
While Kratom’s opioid-like compounds have been said to provide pain and anxiety relief and has been widely reported to ease opiate withdrawal and can help users wean off of street drugs like heroin, it does not come without side effects. There are quite a few of them.
Kratom can cause many side effects when taken by mouth, including tongue numbness, nausea, vomiting, dry mouth, need to urinate, constipation, aggression, hallucinations, delusions, and thyroid problems. Kratom in large doses may cause trouble breathing, brain swelling, seizures, liver damage, and even death. Kratom is currently not federally scheduled as a controlled substance, but it is considered a drug of concern. Additionally, a new report by the CDC found that kratom caused 91 overdose deaths in 27 states by April 2019.
Natural, but not safe
Because kratom may ease withdrawal symptoms, researchers have studied it as a potential treatment. The evidence suggests that rather than treating addiction and withdrawal, the use of kratom may lead to them. Over time, people who use kratom may develop cravings for it. In one study, people who took kratom for more than six months experienced withdrawal symptoms similar to those that occur after opioid use.
The treatment for kratom overdose is similar to that for opioid overdose, and people experience many of the same treatment problems and may require many of the same medications that are used to treat opioid addiction, such as buprenorphine (Buprenex) and naloxone (Narcan, Evzio). When kratom is used during pregnancy, the infant may experience symptoms of withdrawal after birth.
Is it all bad?
When someone takes low doses of kratom, it’s been shown to act as a stimulant, with some effects similar to amphetamine. Stimulant-related side effects of taking a low dose of kratom, which is classified as less than five grams of raw leaves, has claimed to include increased energy and alertness, decreased appetite, enhanced cognitive function, pain relief, the ability to reduce anxiety and treat insomnia and other sleep conditions AND even improve sociability.
Is Kratom Legal?
The legal stance of kratom remains in a gray area in America. On a federal level, this plant is technically legal; however, some states have regulations in place for selling and using the drug. Other states have banned it completely.
States that have imposed regulations and bans include:
- Alabama, which has marked the plant as a Schedule 1 controlled substance since May of 2016, and banned it completely.
- Arkansas, which has marked the drug as a Schedule 1 controlled substance since February of 2016, and banned it completely.
- California, which has banned kratom use in San Diego only.
- Florida, which has banned the use of this drug in Sarasota Country only.
- Illinois, which only allows the sale of kratom to those over the age of 18. While kratom is legal in Illinois, it is banned in Jerseyville.
- Indiana, which has banned kratom use completely.
- New Hampshire, which only allows the sale of kratom to those over the age of 18.
- Tennessee, which has banned kratom use completely.
- Wisconsin, which has banned the use of this drug completely.
As with pain medications and recreational drugs, it is possible to overdose on kratom. Although people may enjoy the good feelings that kratom can produce, kratom has not proved to be an effective treatment for opioid withdrawal.
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. When someone is addicted to kratom, they will experience withdrawal symptoms if they stop using it and will probably end up using it several times a day. While there are companies and organizations that like to praise kratom, there is limited research on its potential harmful effects. There are also plenty of stories about how easy it is to become addicted to kratom, so perhaps it’s best to avoid using this drug altogether.