Drug Policy

The DEA Thinks All Kratom Use Is Abuse

The agency says the psychoactive leaf must be banned because it has never been approved.

|

At the end of this month, kratom will be illegal throughout the United States thanks to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which last week announced that a ban is necessary "to avoid an imminent hazard to public safety." The way the DEA reached that conclusion provides an illuminating window on the prohibitionist mindset, which dresses pharmacological phobias in the garb of science.

Kratom is a pain-relieving leaf that acts as a stimulant or a sedative, depending on the dose. But the most important thing to know about kratom, if you want to understand the DEA's reasoning, is that it's not from here. Kratom comes from a tree, Mitragyna speciosa, that is native to Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, and Papua New Guinea. It has gained a following in the United States only recently, hawked by online merchants and head shops as an herbal medicine, "dietary supplement," or legal high. As far as the DEA is concerned, the fact that people in other countries have used kratom for centuries to ease pain, boost work performance, and wean themselves from opiate addiction counts for nothing. All the DEA needs to know is that our shores have been invaded by a foreign drug that is increasingly popular among Americans as a home remedy and recreational intoxicant. From the DEA's perspective, that is intolerable, regardless of the drug's hazards or benefits.

If you think I'm exaggerating, consider how the DEA decided that kratom meets the criteria for "temporary" placement in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, the law's most restrictive category. The DEA has at least two years to make that designation permanent, which it almost certainly will do after going through a somewhat more elaborate process of bureaucratic self-justification. For the time being, it need only consider three factors: "the substance's history and current pattern of abuse; the scope, duration and significance of abuse; and what, if any, risk there is to the public health."

That exercise is easy, because according to the DEA all use of kratom is abuse and the substance has no benefits. That means any hazards associated with kratom pose an unacceptable risk to public health, even if they compare favorably to those associated with legal intoxicants, over-the-counter remedies, and prescription drugs.

"Kratom is abused for its ability to produce opioid-like effects," the DEA says. "Kratom is misused to self-treat chronic pain and opioid withdrawal symptoms, with users reporting its effects to be comparable to prescription opioids." So if you use kratom to relax, relieve pain, or get off heroin, that's abuse.

"Kratom is an increasingly popular drug of abuse and readily available on the recreational drug market in the United States," the DEA says. So if you use kratom for fun, that's abuse.

Any medicinal use of kratom has to be abuse, the DEA figures, because kratom has not been approved for any indication by the Food and Drug Administration. Nor has the government approved kratom as a recreational intoxicant or a utilitarian stimulant (possibly because no such regulatory categories exist for new drugs), so those uses are also beyond the pale.

The DEA's blinkered thinking is especially glaring when it frowns on kratom as a substitute for heroin. "Kratom has a history of being used as an opium substitute in Southeast Asia," it says. "Especially concerning, reports note users have turned to kratom as a replacement for other opioids, such as heroin." So if a heroin addict switches to a less dangerous drug, that is "concerning," even if the switch enables him to taper off his drug use and ultimately stop completely. In other words, even using kratom to reduce drug abuse is drug abuse.

With logic like that, it's a cinch for the DEA to conclude that mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine, kratom's main active components, have "a high potential for abuse." In the DEA's view, kratom's only potential is for abuse.

Since the DEA assumes there is no rational, morally acceptable reason to use kratom, it does not need to muster much evidence that kratom is intolerably dangerous. That's a good thing for the DEA, because the evidence indicates that kratom is less hazardous than drugs that are legally used for similar purposes.

"Serious toxicity is rare and usually involves relatively high doses (more than 15 g) or coingestants," says a 2014 article in the journal Pharmacotherapy by clinical pharmacologist Megan Rech and four of her colleagues at the Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Illinois. "Fatalities typically involve coingestants…. Withdrawal has been described as less intense but more protracted than with prescription opioids."

A 2015 literature review in the International Journal of Legal Medicine offers a similar assessment. "Kratom is considered minimally toxic," write Florida forensic scientist Marcus Warner and two co-authors, although they add that "research evaluating its toxic effects on humans is limited, with the vast majority of studies involving animals." Warner et al. say "withdrawal symptoms are generally nonexistent to mild, even for heavy users" and note that two Florida counties "have deemed kratom not ready for regulation due to the lack of information demonstrating the substance as being unsafe or hazardous."

Warner and his colleagues concur with Rech et al. that there's little evidence kratom is lethal by itself. "Although death has been attributed to kratom use," they write, "there is no solid evidence that kratom was the sole contributor to an individual's death. In most documented instances, mitragynine was detected in combination with other drugs."

Pascal Tanguay, a program officer for PSI, an international health promotion organization, in Thailand, was more emphatic in a 2013 interview with MinnPost. "There's never been a single death associated with kratom," Tanguay said. "People have been chewing this for thousands of years with no cases of overdose, psychosis, murder, violent crime. Never in all of recorded history."

Although the DEA claims there have been "numerous deaths associated with kratom," it does not cite any deaths where kratom was the only factor. The agency cites 14 deaths "reported in the scientific literature," plus 16 others that "have been confirmed by autopsy/medical examiner reports," meaning that "mitragynine and/or 7-hydroxymitragynine were identified in biological samples." It is not safe to assume, as the DEA does, that every person who ever died after consuming kratom died because he consumed kratom. But even if you overlook that logical fallacy, a grand total of 30 "deaths associated with kratom" in the whole world over the course of centuries is hardly "numerous," and it pales beside the number of deaths associated with myriad legal drugs. Alcohol, for instance, is implicated in about 88,000 deaths a year in the U.S. alone, while 28,000 deaths were attributed to heroin and opioid painkillers in 2014.

The DEA plays a similar trick when it cites a report on kratom-related calls to poison control centers that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published in July. From January 2010 through December 2015, the DEA notes, "U.S. poison centers received 660 calls related to kratom exposure." It adds that "during this time, there was a tenfold increase in the number of calls received, from 26 in 2010 to 263 in 2015." Reported symptoms included "agitation or irritability, tachycardia, nausea, drowsiness, and hypertension."

An average of 110 cases a year may sound like a lot, but it's not. It represents about 0.004 percent of the 3 million or so calls received by poison control centers each year. By comparison, exposures involving analgesics accounted for nearly 300,000 calls in 2014, while cosmetics and personal care products, cleaning solutions, antidepressants, and antihistamines each accounted for more than 100,000. The DEA not only fails to put the number of kratom-related calls in perspective; it does not mention that two-thirds of the cases were deemed "minor" or "moderate," while only 7 percent (eight per year) were described as "life-threatening." The CDC noted a single death in six years, "reported in a person who was exposed to the medications paroxetine (an antidepressant) and lamotrigine (an anticonvulsant and mood stabilizer) in addition to kratom."

These numbers are pretty reassuring, especially since the DEA says "millions of dosage units" are imported into the U.S. each year. But the agency draws the opposite conclusion, saying "such alarming quantities create an imminent public health and safety threat."

The DEA makes at least one valid point about the risks of using kratom, which is available from many different vendors, some more reliable than others. "Since abusers [i.e., users] obtain kratom…through unknown sources," it says, "the identity, purity, and quantity of these substances are uncertain and inconsistent." Does anyone outside of the DEA think prohibition will take care of that problem?

This article originally appeared at Forbes.com.

Advertisement

NEXT: Political Correctness Prevents Syracuse University from Screening Israeli Film

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 Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Isn’t this under the jurisdiction of the FDA?

    1. Lets hope it is, it’ll be so much better then…

    2. If pot becomes legal the DEA will need another reason to kidnap and shoot people. It’s just job security.

      1. +1 terrorists gonna terrorize

    3. My brother’s friend Bryan showed me how I can make some cash while working from my home on my computer… Now I earn $86 every hour and I couldn’t be happier… Before this job I had trouble finding job for months but now when I got this gig I wouldn’t trade it for nothing. Start this website
      go web and click tech tab for more info work… http://goo.gl/AzTMwA

    4. My brother’s friend Bryan showed me how I can make some cash while working from my home on my computer… Now I earn $86 every hour and I couldn’t be happier… Before this job I had trouble finding job for months but now when I got this gig I wouldn’t trade it for nothing. Start this website
      go web and click tech tab for more info work… http://goo.gl/AzTMwA

  2. Did they ever approve orally-ingested lavender oil for anxiety? It works (and there is research to back that statement) and is available through supplement companies. They are hypocrites to the max. #iamkratom

  3. FDA is behind this. They represent big pharmaceutical companies and they want kratom gone. Its taking away from there profits when people stop taking prescription painkillers and use kratom to treat their pain. I work for one big pharmaceutical companies and know how they work. Its all about profit.

  4. DEA is just another illegitimate unconstitutional federal government agency headed by authoritarians. Its dubious authority was granted by the centralized socialist state of FDR.

  5. Kratom is a safe alternative to opiates, I use it myself. DEA is absolutely going to push people back onto harder drugs and be responsible for multitudes of preventable deaths. It makes me sick how blatantly corrupt this whole thing is and how they could care less about people who find verifiable relief from this leaf.

    1. “DEA is absolutely going to push people back onto harder drugs and be responsible for multitudes of preventable deaths”
      Oh, they’re going to be devastated when they realize that…

  6. Brandon . I can see what your saying… Victor `s rep0rt is good, last wednesday I bought a great Audi Quattro since I been making $5790 this past 5 weeks and just over ten-k this past munth . it’s by-far the most rewarding I have ever had . I actually started five months/ago and almost immediately brought home over $82, p/h .
    +_+_+_+_+_+_+_+_+ http://www.factoryofincome.com

  7. The DEA is overstepping their boundaries the plant has healing properties and the argument comparing it to heroin is unbelievable. Heroin killed over 250+ people in Cincinnati within 6 days and kratom ALONE has not killed one person. Even the story of the suicide was not related to kratom alone he was on pharmaceuticals and other drugs. Don’t blame kratom. http://kratomcrazy.com

  8. Well, my life is over. I’ve used this for anxiety and depression and it works, whereas everything the pharmaceutical companies hasn’t worked for me. Depression/anger was so bad it was jeopardizing my marriage and job. Not sure what I will do. Grown man and I cried when I heard the news. I guess I’m a criminal now for going to work, paying my taxes, and taking care of my family.

  9. This is just a way for the DEA to ensure it exists now and tomorrow.

    It’s instructive it’s not the Drug Prohibition Agency. It’s drug ENFORCEMENT.

    1. these drug jihadis should be enforcing purity and quality making sure they are safe

  10. More wrong doors to smash down.

    I didn’t realize the DEA had that much power. I thought this was the job of elected legislators?

    1. That’s the problem with all these bureaucracies, too much power in the hands of people who don’t suffer any consequences for being wrong. As opposed to elected politicians, whom… oh, wait!

  11. The DEA is punishing those that wouldn’t buy in to their corporate offerings for health and wellness. Those that did their own research and found kratom themselves. They are turning good people, who have found kratom to be helpful for a wide variety of medical problems, into criminals. There are only two reasons why they would do such a thing. The first, as many people have theorized, is that the DEA is enforcing the interests of the pharmaceutical companies. Taking out a highly effective, low cost competitor that interferes with their profit margins. The second is that the DEA needs more criminals so they can justify their laughably enormous budget of over $2 billion per year. By making kratom illegal the DEA has put all kratom users in the same category as all other illegal drug users. As well as making the countless legitimate businesses that sell and distribute kratom no better than your average corner drug dealer. Because more supposed “criminals” means a bigger budget for them in the future.

  12. Start working at home with Google! It’s by-far the best job I’ve had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for $6474 this – 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringing home at least $77 per hour. I work through this link, go? to tech tab for work detail,,,,,,,
    ——————>>> http://www.works76.com

  13. I just swallowed some before I saw this article. It is a really mild drug. This is a bummer.

  14. The ridiculous crony capitalism of the federal government is well illustrated by birth control pills, which are OTC in most of the world, but require expensive and repeated medical exams and prescriptions in the US.

  15. it appears the dea is offically a radicalized domestic terror group waging jihad on plants and then terrorizing people that they disagree with. the dea is the criminal because they seek to “legally” use violence to enforce their moral code,exactly like ISIS.

  16. the dea is a threat, trying to “legally” use force on people over plant. the state terrorizing people over a plant is so safe and healthy, these tyrants should be enforcing quality

  17. Start working at home with Google! It’s by-far the best job I’ve had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for $6474 this – 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringing home at least $77 per hour. I work through this link, go? to tech tab for work detail,,,,,,,
    ——————>>> http://www.works76.com

  18. my classmate’s aunt makes $74 /hr on the internet . She has been fired for eight months but last month her paycheck was $12598 just working on the internet for a few hours. find out here now

    ?????? http://www.businessbay4.com/

  19. my classmate’s aunt makes $74 /hr on the internet . She has been fired for eight months but last month her paycheck was $12598 just working on the internet for a few hours. find out here now

    ?????? http://www.businessbay4.com/

  20. Olivia . I can see what your saying… Matthew `s storry is great, last tuesday I bought a gorgeous BMW M3 since I been earnin $9756 this last month and-a little over, 10/k this past munth . without a question it is the most-financialy rewarding Ive ever done . I began this 7-months ago and practically straight away earned more than $71 per hour . More Info..
    ???????>>> http://www.earnmax6.com/

  21. Gave Kratom a try earlier this year and it was basically an un-perscribed vicodin with the same constipation side effects as other opiates. I completely understand why the feds want to control it, but making it illegal is a bit silly.

    1. Kratom has a completely different physiological effect than Vicodin. It is not an opiate and the side effects are much less dangerous.

  22. Our government is becoming as dangerous as our enemies.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.