Synthetic Drugs

War on Drugs Ensnares Coffee Relative

Wisconsin becomes the fourth state to ban kratom, which is closer to caffeine than opium.


Kerry Biggs needed help managing her chronic pain.

Years of taking prescription medications to alleviate the pain caused by her fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis and other ailments had left the mother of two "feeling foggy."

Desperate to find an alternative, Biggs tried kratom. Derived from the leaves of the kratom tree, a close relative of the coffee plant, it has been used for centuries in Southeast Asia for its medicinal properties.

In small doses, kratom acts as a minor stimulant similar to caffeine. In larger doses its works as a painkiller and can act as an antidepressant for some people. 

"It gave me a new lease on life," said Biggs, who was able to wean herself off prescription painkillers by using kratom. "It dampened down my pain without all the side effects that come with taking prescription drugs."

That new lease on life came to an abrupt end last year, because Biggs lives in Wisconsin. In 2014, Wisconsin became the fourth state to ban kratom.

Kratom was never mentioned by state legislators either before or after the vote that made it illegal. 

Instead, two of the chemicals in it were included on a list of synthetic opioids lawmakers classified as Schedule 1 drugs, despite the fact kratom is neither synthetic nor an opioid.

No one in Madison has been able to explain how or why the chemicals ended up on the list, but their inclusion means kratom is now in the same category as heroin and cocaine.

At a meeting of the Wisconsin Controlled Substances Board last week, board member Alan Bloom said he was surprised to see the kratom on the list of schedule substances.

"They stick out like a sore thumb," said Bloom, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Bloom was blunt in his assessment of the scheduling of kratom. "There's no scientific basis for it," he told his colleagues.

But state lawmakers aren't required to rely on science in their decisions. In 2012, legislators in Indiana made kratom illegal by declaring it to be a synthetic drug.

Tennessee and Vermont followed Indiana's example, treating a tree's leaves like something created in a lab.

"Most people in this country have never heard of kratom, and there's a lot of bad information out there about it," said Susan Ash, executive director of the American Kratom Association.

Ash has used kratom since 2011 to manage the symptoms of advanced Lyme disease. She founded AKA last year to advocate for people who use kratom and combat misinformation and efforts to ban it.

"There are some companies out there who aren't interested in helping people and they are promoting kratom as a 'legal high.' That's led to some hysterical stories in the media," Ash said.

"Usually it's a story by a local TV news crew. They usually claim it's a dangerous new synthetic drug, even though it's not synthetic and it's been used for hundreds of years in Asia. They never talk to people who use for health reasons."

Kratom, she says, "would be a terrible recreational drug. You either drink a liquid extract of kratom or swallow it as a powder, and it tastes awful. It tastes like green tea mixed with dirt."

Anyone looking for a high, legal or otherwise, is going to be disappointed by kratom, according to Dr. Jack Henningfield, the former chief of the Clinical Pharmacology Research Branch at the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

"Kratom has what is known as a ceiling effect – that is, the pain relief it provides in larger doses has a definite limit. No matter how much you take, it is never going to reproduce the effect of a morphine-like opiate," Henningfield said.

"The best comparison is caffeine. People drink coffee or cola to get the stimulant effect of caffeine. But even drinking a lot of coffee is never going to achieve the stimulant effect of amphetamines because caffeine also has a ceiling effect."

Henningfield is vice president of Health Policy and Abuse Liability at Pinney Associate, a scientific consulting firm. (Pinney was hired to study kratom by United Naturals, which makes a low-dose liquid extract of kratom that it sells as a short-term energy booster.)

"My team and I reviewed the medical literature to determine the potential for abuse of kratom," Henningfield said. "Again, the best comparison is caffeine. Some people may come to depend on it for its effects, but it doesn't pose a real danger of addiction or other severe adverse effects."

CSB member Dr. Timothy Westlake sees the possible public benefits in making kratom legal again.

"We're trying to decrease the amount of opiates that are prescribed for pain. [Kratom] is not a panacea, but the addictive potential seems a heck of a lot less than that of opiates," Westlake, a physician, said at last week's meeting.

Descheduling kratom in Wisconsin would be a long process. But last week the board voted unanimously to take the first step, directing its staff to research how the two chemicals in kratom found their ways onto last year's list of substances to be scheduled.

The only reason the CSB took that first, tentative step is because Kerry Biggs and a group of other Wisconsinites represented by AKA pressed the board to do so at its August meeting. 

Biggs, who attended the more recent CSB December, was pleased by the board's action. She intends to make the long drive from her Milwaukee home to Madison every time kratom is on the board's agenda.

"I'll keep coming back, as many times as necessary," Biggs said. "This is very important to me. It's very important to a lot of people."

NEXT: Triggered Students Want a Building Renamed Because It's Called Lynch Memorial Hall

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. I used kratom as pain “management” after breaking some ribs puncturing my lungs and all sorts of associated damage. It does work better then nothing at all for severe pain. And it was cheap. Cheaper then off brand aspin and worked better then asprin too.

    If you’ve ever had a dozen chocolate covered espresso beans, thats about the “stimulant” level of the 1000mg kratom capsule’s I aquired.

  2. Uh oh, a natural product that contains chemicals that compete with those developed by drug companies. Better ban it. It takes a massive dose to get the same “high” as a couple of capsules of Valerian root.

    1. I hope one day you are not in a situation where you can’t get out of bed, have no quality of life, and doctors basically tell you, ” well at least you’re not dying, stay in bed”. Suffer, why live?

  3. I would love to see coca leaf legalized. I used it for months up in the high Andes both as a tea and a chew. It really helps with altitude and backpacking up in the mountains. The closest comparison I would give is caffeine mixed with nicotine.

  4. Cocaine is not a Schedule 1 drug.

  5. kratom… sounds scary

    1. So does Richard

  6. My best friends cousin started taking kratom and 3 weeks later she was hooked on meth and almost died. Not everyone reacts to Kratom the same way. They need to do a lot more research before they reschedule this drug.

    1. sounds like a gateway

    2. [Citation Needed]

    3. OH MY GOD!

      My uncle’s cousin’s brother’s mother-in-law’s neighbor did that too! Wait, or was it my cousin’s uncle’s brother-in-laws barber, or my….

      I call BS.

    4. My first cousin twice removed* started dosing on caffeine, and a month later, was found bathing in large quantities of bath salts! Of course, I didn’t let her get near my face.

      *Or is she my second cousin once removed? I keep forgetting.

  7. If it contains even one atom, it is an atomic danger.

  8. No, kratom is not a drug, but neither is willow bark. But willow bark does contain a pharmacologically active precursor of aspirin. Likewise kratom does contain known mu opioid receptor agonists – so there are opiates in there.

    Different people get different effects largely because it also contains other things, like a methylxanthine analogue (the caffeine like effect) and a glutamate modulating agent, and the exact amounts of these different components can vary substatially from plant to plant and product to product.

    1. Are you a chemist, or scientist ???

  9. Politicians have a long history of passing legislation on issues that they don’t understand. Why should anyone be surprised at something like this happening? Let’s just hope they don’t start banning dihydrogen monoxide, or we’ll all be in real trouble!

  10. It’s pretty insane to me that Kratom could be illegalized anywhere in the U.S. So little is known about it, and like the article states, it was never even mentioned to the public!

    I’ve been using Kratom for almost 3 years now, and trust me when I say the stuff is not deadly by any means. I love That a UserName “AddictionMyth” made up that story and no one was bright enough to see that it’s just an addiction myth.

    Seriously though, if you are interested in trying Kratom, I would try out the Shiva Green Maeng Da from OK. It’s the most potent plain leaf strain I’ve ever tried and I’ve been experimenting and researching Kratom for about 3 years now.

    1. It is not an addiction myth! You are ignorant, insane, in denial, lying, crazy and stupid. And your words are a threat to the still suffering Kratom addict. That shit’s worse than ISIS. I hear they get hopped up on it and it makes them relentless killing machines. But yeah, I will check out that brand you mentioned. It’s at GNC?

  11. I’m a 71-year-old grandmother who has never even smoked pot (or tobacco). However, I have used kratom every day for almost the last three years to manage the symptoms of severe restless leg syndrome. Before I found kratom I couldn’t get more than 2 or 3 hours of sleep a night. I couldn’t take a plane ride that was over an hour or two long. I couldn’t even sit on my couch to read book. Severe restless leg syndrome is really a form of torture.

    Kratom gave me my life back. Whereas the prescription drugs for this condition have extremely unpleasant side effects–and often actually make the syndrome worse–kratom has no side effects at all. It doesn’t make me high, or hung-over, or nauseous. I take a very small dose–usually just a gram–and within 20 minutes the RLS symptoms disappear. Now I can take cross-country plane rides to visit my grandchildren. I can curl up on my couch with a cup of tea and a book. And I can finally sleep. With a few doses of kratom, spread throughout the night, I can get seven or even eight hours of sleep.

    Kratom is currently legal in my state. If it becomes illegal, I guess I’ll have to move. Either that, or I’ll be the grandmother out on the street corner looking for a drug dealer. Thank you so much for running this article highlighting the issue.

  12. I truly can’t understand how the gov’t has any right here. Let me tell you my daily routine: get up, take insulin, climb back to bed. This could be day or night, it doesn’t matter, since I no longer have Any Quality of Life. I suffer chronic pain, CFS, Diabetes, fibromyalgia, Neuropathy, seizures, etc. But my last 15 yrs. have been pure hell. Doctors don’t care, afraid of the DEA now. So if a Dr started you on a pain meds years, they’ve probably waleft you off by now, and you suffer.

  13. I blame the utterly unscrupulous media for fanning the the the flames of fear on this. They quote people who know nothing about this and make people think they’re giving solid info. The other are the greedy fools that mix kratom with questionable chemicals a promote it as a quick “high “. These people have done immense harm. The other is big pharma and their odd attempt to create a world where only the elite few can find real pain control.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.