What is Kratom, and Why Did The DEA Back Down From Banning It?

It’s not that uncommon for a new recreational drug to reach US shores or even be created in the US.  Sometimes it’s a plant that has been used for generations from another country, a new formulation, or a synthetic analog for an existing (but illegal) recreational drug.  It doesn’t take particularly long for the DEA to jump into action, assess the situation, and place it on the Controlled Substances Schedule, either permanently or on the temporary emergency list.  But, with Kratom, something weird happened:  the DEA put it on it’s emergency list for a Schedule I controlled substance, then immediately took it back off.  That suddenly made the entire situation newsworthy.

Before we get too far into this, you might want to take a look back at our series on marijuana and Cannabinoids, particularly the legal section if you want to fully understand how the legality of both recreational drugs and medications you purchase at the pharmacy.  But, a quick rundown if you don’t want to get into heavy reading:

The DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency)

breaks down controlled substances into five categories that determine how dangerous, how addictive, and how useful further research into the drug in question is.  Schedule I drugs are considered to have a high potential for abuse and no medical value, while Schedule V are considered to have low potential for abuse.  How a drug ends up on the controlled substances list is a little complicated, and often involves some input from the FDA and local, state, and federal law enforcement.  In the case of Kratow, if it’s sold as an “herbal supplement”, the FDA generally has very little say on it unless it’s found to be dangerous.  If it’s listed as medication or as having medical benefits, however, if falls squarely within the FDA’s mandate.

What is Kratom?

Kratom is a tree in the coffee family, Mitragyna Speciosa for those who are botanically inclined.  It’s not native to the US, but for as far back as the 19th century it’s been used as a southern Asian remedy for chronic pain, and more recently, used to help withdrawal symptoms from opioids such as Vicodin (hydrocodone), Percocet (oxycodone) Morphine, and Heroin.  In addition to the plant itself, the DEA was planning on placing the active substances in Kratom (mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine) on the Schedule I list in order to contol synthetic versions as well.

Why Make it Controlled?

There are a couple of reasons, but the biggest one is because of it’s unknown effects.  The goal of the FDA, for instance, is to make sure substances currently on the market, which claim to have medical effects, actually have the effects listed and are safe for those who take them.  As of yet, no clinical trials of Kratom have been performed.   Hence, no one actually knows if it’s safe or not.  There have been reports of deaths associated with Kratom, even though these deaths may not have been from pure Kratom, but instead the plant mixed with other products.

Along with some of the unknowns for safety, it’s also unknown how addictive it may be.

Why Take if Off The List?

Public feedback had a lot to do with pausing the change in status for Kratom.  The DEA released a notice they would be placing it on the list within 30 days, and an uproar occurred.  More than 120,000 people signed a petition to halt the change in status for the plant, along with many science based groups wanting to keep it off the Schedule I list, so it could be studied more closely.  If it does indeed act as a worthwhile opioid alternative, it gives medical professionals another tool for combating pain.

Taking it off the list doesn’t make it legal in the United States, though.  Six states have banned the sale and / or possession of Kratom.  Kansas has not passed legislation to ban Kratom at this time, and it’s not known if there are any plans of banning it here.

What’s the Future of Kratom?

Right now, the DEA has put a halt to having it placed on the controlled substances Schedule list.  That doesn’t mean it will remain off the list permanently.   But, without being on the list, it gives scientists a chance to further explore it:  Is it safe?  Does it work as a good alternative to opioid pain management solutions in some situations?  Are there health risks from long term use?  Is it as addictive as opioids, or is it more like caffeine?  The answer to all of those questions are a ways down the road, and they are what determine the future of Kratom.

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