“Herbal Opiate”: Why the DEA is critical of certain crushed leaves

Toni Pennello, Asst. News Editor

What behaves like an opiate, doesn’t have deadly overdose symptoms, reportedly boosts moods in low doses while acting as a sedative in high doses and is an herb related to coffee?

Kratom.

Kratom is a plant native to Southeast Asia that has historically been used as an herbal supplement to ease pain, boost mood and provide energy. Kratom is not a psychoactive drug and it is not a derivative – it is just a leaf.

Kratom can be sold in the form of leaves, powdered leaves, tablets filled with the ground leaves, extracts and more.

But not for long.

“Kratom is not a drug. Kratom is not an opiate. Kratom is not a synthetic substance. Naturally occurring Kratom is a safe herbal supplement that’s more akin to tea and coffee than any other substances,” The American Kratom Association contends. “It behaves as a partial mu-opioid receptor agonist and is used for pain management, energy, even depression and anxiety that are so common among Americans. Kratom contains no opiates, but it does bind to the same receptor sites in the brain. Chocolate, coffee, exercise and even human breast milk hit these receptor sites in a similar fashion.”

In late August, the DEA announced that Kratom will be listed as a Schedule I drug beginning Sept. 30. This puts it on the same list as heroin, marijuana, LSD, mescaline and bath salts.

Drugs in this schedule are placed there because of their high potential for abuse, lack of accepted medical use in the US and lack of accepted safety for use.

As a result, the internet is ablaze with protest from former opiate abusers, people with chronic pain who are averse to prescription drugs and even people with anxiety and depression.

To support their decision, the DEA has cited 660 calls to the poison control center over the last five years (2010-2015) relating to the supplement.

Gary Smith, MD, who is the director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, told Forbes in April that every 45 minutes, every single day, poison control is called because of children ingesting laundry detergent pods.

Between 2013 and 2014, there were 62,254 cases of this reported in children under 6 years old.

These statistics are often cited by media when discussing the scheduling of Kratom, leading to the question “why aren’t Tide Pods being banned, too?”

According to Jason Harlen, CEO of Wyoming Valley Alcohol and Drug Services, Inc. (WVAD), there have hardly been any cases of Kratom abuse in the area brought to their attention.

“We don’t see a lot of it here, that people are telling us about anyway,” he said. “There really doesn’t seem to be a lot of negative things associated with it, like ER visits and things like that… I personally have never seen anyone through my doors who was abusing Kratom.

“Is anyone going to counseling because they’re socially drinking? No, because they don’t see it as a problem,” Harlen analogized.

This is not for lack of use in the area, attested Bob Maculloch, owner of tobacco pipe shop Utopia, located on S. Main St. in Wilkes-Barre. Utopia has been selling Kratom for quite a while.

“It’s very popular and the reasons why our customers like Kratom is in a big spectrum — everything from people who like it for its natural energy, to customers who have expressed really heartfelt stories about using it to kind of deal with physical pain, to things like anxiety and sleep disorders and people who just like have every day stress,” Maculloch explained.

Machulloch describes the feeling of Kratom as not quite a high, but rather a general feeling of euphoria and happiness. He explained that the worst that can happen in the case of an “overdose” is nausea and vomiting. The only deaths associated with the herb have been in conjunction with other substances.

“And then we have our customers that were addicted to opiates, whether it be prescribed medicine or illegal narcotics, that have tried everything else and haven’t been able to manage it through anything but Kratom,” he added.

In 1994, legislation was made that stated any herbal supplements must be regulated by the FDA. Any supplements marketed prior to 1994 could be sold without regulation, but must mention so on the label. Containers of Kratom had that label, but the legality is complicated.

“Kratom wasn’t really into the mainstream at that point… I’d say Kratom found its way into the mainstream maybe about a decade ago, and so because it didn’t come in before that law went into place it kind of is just in this weird grey area where it’s not an herbal supplement. It’s just kind of an herb,” Machulloch explained.

Overall, Machulloch does not think it is fair to classify kratom in Schedule I.

“There are a lot of parallels to marijuana with it, as far as it being a plant that people are obviously choosing and that the government, for whatever reason, is choosing to look past the scientific and medical evidence, look past the personal testimonials that Americans are putting out there, and just going right for kind of the kill on it,” Machulloch said.

“For people who have experienced Kratom, and you don’t even have to experience a Schedule 1 drug, you just know right off the bat that it’s not something on that level,” he added.

“I don’t have the scientific data to prove it, but from customer testimonial to being around people who do have problems with some of those really heavy drugs, whether it be meth, crack, heroin… I mean it’s just a different world.”

The scientific data is where the issue comes in, says Alex Northrup, who is a recent graduate from University of Delaware with a chemistry degree currently working in the pharmaceutical industry.

“I think it’s super important that it’s only a temporary Schedule 1… that allows for a little bit of time for studies to be published since there are still very few, including on toxicology,” Northrup explained.

Northrup added that Kratom is not an over-the-counter medication, but people are using it as such without knowing everything about it.

“People are self-prescribing for things like pain and opioid addiction without knowing how it interacts with their body or with the medications they’re already taking, and most science doesn’t know yet either,” Northrup said.

He explained that while it is “unfair” to those who have found Kratom to be a successful treatment, their personal testimonies are not the clinical trials that are needed for verification that mass consumption is safe.

“While Schedule 1 may be a bit harsh, taking Kratom off the market until science catches up to its use is really important,” he said.

Many users still are not satisfied with this explanation, and are taking up arms on the internet.

The AKA proposed a call to action on their website asking that people who use kratom do things like call the DEA, petition the Whitehouse, email the Assistant Secretary of Health, and more.

For more information about the movement to keep kratom legal, visit americankratom.org.