The DEA and Kratom – An Unusual Drugs Story

In the latter half of 2016, the Drugs Enforcement Agency (DEA) announced plans to give the Southeast Asian herb kratom Schedule 1 status, meaning that it would be banned from all scientific testing and labelled a drug of no medical value. The DEA somewhat routinely does this (some say, fighting science off new drug research), yet for the first time in the agency’s history changed its collective mind and suspended the scheduling. Kratom is currently legal to use as a result.

What is kratom?

It is widely reported that kratom has extremely good painkilling and anti-inflammatory effects yet has nowhere near the potential of abuse that opiates do.

Kratom’s active molecules bind to the same nerve receptors as opiate painkillers do, and consequently deal with pain in much the same way. The difference is largely that you don’t get sedated and can often function in society in much the same way as you might after a good cup of coffee. The coffee metaphor is a good one too, as kratom is genetically related to the coffee bush, though while with coffee you drink the essence of the beans you consume kratom as a form of tea.

The problem with kratom is that it can give you a bit of a buzz. Even though you get more of a buzz when off your face on opiate medications prescribed by your doctor (and there is no doubt that opiates would be banned today if just discovered) it seems that the US government prefers people to get off their nuts on alcohol and perhaps from coffee that’s a little too strong… There is some controversy in Malaysia right now as this plant, which is indigenous to the region, may well be banned there too.

Speaking to the Malaysian Digest, one rural resident of the country explained, “Most of them, just like me drink ketum juice for energy. The juice, when taken in the right doses, acts as a good energy drink.”

DEA backs down after a petition

When the DEA announced it would ban kratom from sale in the US, there was a huge response with more than 23,000 people responding to the consultation. 576 of the respondents identified themselves as healthcare professionals, 98% of whom objected to scheduling. Overall, 99.1% of the respondents objected to the banning of the substance, so the DEA announced it would assess the science around kratom before it made further announcements. For now, buying kratom in the United States is perfectly legal.

The future of kratom?

One particular strength of the active molecules in the kratom leaf is that they can help people withdraw safely from opioid addiction. Most people in the current opioid epidemic are becoming hooked on prescription pain pills. Kratom is increasingly being shown as a very good aid for the withdrawal from pain pills. Kratom, if allowed to be as it is, could help the DEA’s biggest problem of the day in tackling America’s addiction to pain pills. Rather than ban it, actively promoting its use could well stop one of the most pressing public health issues of today.

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