Controversy erupts over ban of hot new drug
The federal Drug Enforcement Agency’s proposed restrictions on kratom’s painkilling properties could take effect after a 30-day notice period ends Friday. DEA spokesman Russ Baer couldn’t give the exact date that possession, manufacture and distribution of kratom is likely to become illegal.
“It’s not if, it’s when,” he told American Media Institute.
Kratom poses an “imminent hazard” to public health, Baer said. It is often marketed as a safe, natural alternative to controlled opioid medications such as oxycodone, morphine and codeine. But with effects that are similar to prescription painkillers and heroin, it can also be abused, Baer said.
Despite mounting opposition from politicians and the public, the DEA plans to take emergency action to temporarily classify two of the tropical tree’s alkaloids — mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine — as Schedule I under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. The designation is for drugs with no accepted medical use and the high potential for abuse, such as heroin, LSD and ecstasy.
The move gives the federal Food and Drug Administration up to three years to study the substance to determine whether kratom has legitimate medicinal uses before its active ingredients are classified permanently.
The DEA points to 15 known kratom-related deaths since 2014 as proof of the problem. However, the botanical’s backers argue it can’t be blamed because other drugs were involved in at least 14 of those casualties.
“One death is sufficient in and of itself,” Baer said. “We truly are in the midst of an opioid epidemic. Too many people are dying.”
The DEA also cites a rise in the nationwide number of calls to poison control centers related to kratom as evidence of its danger. Calls increased tenfold from 26 in 2010 to 263 in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
On the other hand, katom might be the “holy grail” doctors and researchers have long been looking for as an alternative to highly addictive opioids, according to Andrew Kruegel, a medicinal chemist at Columbia University.
Kruegel said the Southeast Asian plant has shown potential in his studies to relieve pain with fewer risks than traditional medicines. He said kratom seems to deliver analgesic effects without slowing breathing, the most common cause of drug-related death.
The looming ban will put up regulatory roadblocks that would cripple Kruegel’s studies and add significant costs.
“Frankly, it’s ridiculous,” he said. “We’re trying to do scientific research.”
The extra burden and the stigma associated with Schedule I substances is also likely to deter labs from starting new studies on kratom. Similar hurdles have for decades prevented most medical marijuana research.
The proposed ban comes at a time when many states across the country are considering lifting the prohibition to allow the recreational or medicinal use of marijuana.
“The American people have got to wake up,” said Angela Harris, who sells kratom at her Las Vegas shop Herbally Grounded. “I’m tired of plants being taken off the market.”
Harris said the real reason kratom is being banned is because it cuts into the profits of pharmaceutical companies. Her customers tell her it reduces their pain and has helped them get off prescription pills.
Susan Ash of Norfolk, Virginia said kratom freed her from the chains of addiction. Lyme disease left the 46-year-old disabled and suffering from chronic pain. Ash said she started the American Kratom Association after the herb helped her get off pain pills.
“I can’t imagine a life without kratom,” she said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do without it.”
The nonprofit has gathered more than 140,000 signatures on its petition asking the Obama administration to stop the ban.
More than 50 members of the U.S. House of Representatives have signed a letter urging Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan to use his authority to delay the planned action. The 22 Republicans and 29 Democrats also wrote to the DEA’s acting administrator, Charles P. Rosenberg, to encourage him to halt the decision until the public has had a chance to weigh in.
Kruegel urges leaders to reduce the drug problem with education and appropriate medical treatment instead of prohibition.
“It's time that we stop demonizing drug addicts and recreational drug users and start looking at practical and compassionate approaches,” he said. “The ‘War on Drugs’ has been one of the greatest public policy failures of the last century.”