If you haven’t heard of Kratom don’t feel like you’re out of the loop. In fact, you’re not that far behind the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The agency only issued an alert on the Kratom plant, known as Mitragyna speciosa, a member of the coffee family that’s native to parts of Southeast Asia, in February 2014. Advocates of kratom, however, are claiming that these are scare tactics similar to that of the 1930’s film Reefer Madness.
Because of its psychoactive properties, kratom is illegal in some countries. Thailand outlawed the plant 70 years ago, though its legal status is now under review due to the plant’s ability to wean users off of stronger drugs, like heroin, cocaine and methamphetamines with fewer withdrawal symptoms.
Under federal guidelines, kratom is legal as a dietary supplement in the United States. In the FDA alert the agency makes it clear that the plant is considered a new dietary ingredient and that shipments of it can be seized if marketed as anything else.
Kratom Side Effects and Health Impact
- Respiratory depression
- Loss of libido
- Skin hyperpigmentation
- Nausea, vomiting
- Severe withdrawal signs and symptoms
The leaves of the kratom plant can be chewed, brewed for tea, ground down for smoking or snorting and even injected. At low doses, kratom acts as a stimulant. Thai laborers historically chewed the leaves to increase their productivity. Modern users have likened it to drinking several cups of strong coffee.
In higher doses, kratom has an opiate like effect because it does, in fact, bond to opiate receptors in the brain. Agencies like the FDA and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which categorizes kratom as a “drug of concern,” point to this data as likelihood that users will become addicted. While there’s been little research on kratom, it appears that regular use will create a tolerance. This means users will have to take more of the drug to achieve the original high.
Professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Edward Boyer, has done several interviews about kratom and he received a grant from the National Institute of Health (NIH) to study the drug. “It has opioid activity like any other opioid, and to suggest that it doesn’t have any abuse liability would be scientifically incorrect,” he said in an interview.
Boyer also pointed out that kratom blunts the process of opium withdrawal extremely well, along with binding to serotonin receptors. “So if you want to treat depression, if you want to treat opioid pain, if you want to treat sleepiness, this [compound] really puts it all together,” he told a reporter at the Scientific American.
Extremely vocal online communities of kratom advocates are opposing agencies like the DEA and the FDA. Groups like the American Kratom Association claim that it’s a relatively safe and natural drug that’s been used for centuries. They add that the painkilling properties of kratom are particularly beneficial for long-term conditions like multiple sclerosis and fibromyalgia.
For the moment kratom remains legal across much of the U.S., though a few states have banned it. Anyone considering taking the drug, however, should be cautious. Some batches have been found laced with oxycodone and other opiates to enhance the drug’s effects.