After the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) announced an "emergency" ban on kratom at the end of August, a spokesman for the agency said "our goal is to make sure this is available."
In case that was not confusing enough, the spokesman, Melvin Patterson, also told The Washington Post that kratom, a pain-relieving leaf from Southeast Asia, does not belong in Schedule I, the most restrictive category under the Controlled Substances Act, even though that is where the DEA had just put it. He added that kratom, which the DEA says has "no currently accepted medical use," is "at a point where it needs to be recognized as medicine."
The DEA apparently was surprised by the backlash against its ban notice, which included angry calls to Capitol Hill, a demonstration near the White House, and letters from members of Congress. In October the agency withdrew the notice, saying it would delay a decision on kratom to allow time for public comments and input from the Food and Drug Administration. Patterson said criticism of the ban "was eye-opening for me personally," adding that "I want the kratom community to know that the DEA does hear them."
That attitude was quite a contrast to the deaf arrogance the DEA displayed when it announced it was temporarily placing the drug in Schedule I, a classification that lasts at least two years and could become permanent. Saying a ban was "necessary to avoid an imminent hazard to the public safety," the DEA summarily dismissed kratom's benefits while exaggerating its dangers.
Kratom, which acts as a stimulant or a sedative, depending on the dose, has been used for centuries in Southeast Asia to ease pain, boost work performance, and wean people from opiate addiction. But the DEA views all kratom use as "abuse."
Since the DEA assumed there was no legitimate reason to use kratom, it did not need to muster much evidence that the drug is intolerably dangerous. It claimed there have been "numerous deaths associated with kratom," by which it meant 30. In the whole world. Ever.
"Deaths associated with kratom" are not necessarily caused by kratom. "Kratom is considered minimally toxic," noted a 2015 literature review. "Although death has been attributed to kratom use, there is no solid evidence that kratom was the sole contributor to an individual's death."
As further proof of kratom's dangers, the DEA noted that "U.S. poison centers received 660 calls related to kratom exposure" from 2010 through 2015, an average of 110 a year. By comparison, exposures involving analgesics accounted for nearly 300,000 calls in 2014, while antidepressants and antihistamines each accounted for more than 100,000.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Is Kratom the New Marijuana?".