What is Kratom?

Kratom, also known as ketum or korth, is a tropical plant in the coffee family. Indigenous healers have used kratom in traditional medicine in the tropics as far back as the 19th century. People use it to treat chronic pain and opioid withdrawal symptoms. People have also begun using kratom recreationally.

In 2013 the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) stated kratom had no legitimate medical use and planned to ban it in the United States. However, on October 12, 2016, the DEA reversed course and decided not to ban the plant pending further information.

Had the DEA continued with its plan, it would have listed the substance among Schedule I drugs. This designation would have classified the drug as having no medical use and a high potential for abuse. Other substances currently classified as Schedule I include LSD, Ecstasy, and heroin.

Why should kratom remain legal?

Advocates of kratom, including the American Kratom Association, argue it can ween people off addictive pain medication, like those made from opioids.

The American Kratom Association formed in 2014. Its aims to protect the right of Americans to use kratom for health purposes. It claims to represent responsible consumers and provide the general public with accurate information about kratom.

Another group on the side of keeping kratom legal is the Botanical Education Alliance. They told ABC News, “Kratom is not an opiate. It is not addictive. There is simply no basis whatsoever for the DEA to criminalize or regulate the responsible use by consumers of this product at a time when every federal effort targeting drugs should be focused on the ongoing scourge of opioid addiction and death.”

While these groups continue to educate the population about how they view kratom, some people believe it can cause negative side effects, including addiction, anorexia, insomnia, and hallucinations. It can also cause death when taken with other drugs.

We need more information about kratom.

The available information about kratom is limited and hard to substantiate. This ambiguity makes the DEA’s decision to keep kratom off the Schedule I list at this time significant. Had the DEA put it on the Schedule I list, obtaining reliable data about its effects would have been much more difficult.

Studying the effects of substances listed as Schedule I requires obtaining special permits to possess the substance and heightened security among the facilities and personnel involved with the study. Plus, researchers may have difficulty legally obtaining a substance on the Schedule I list. Any proposed study may face delays if no samples are readily available. All of these elements make the study more expensive. Researchers may have difficulty obtaining grants to fully fund an expensive study.

One way kratom is similar to marijuana.

Impediment to scientific research caused by a substance’s Schedule I designation fueled much of the backlash stemming from the DEA’s decision to not remove marijuana from the list of Schedule I substances earlier this year. In August, the DEA denied two petitions to initiate the process of rescheduling marijuana.

In the DEA’s letter responding to one of the petitions, it said, “In accordance with the CSA rescheduling provisions, after gathering the necessary data, the DEA requested a scientific and medical evaluation and scheduling recommendation from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The HHS concluded marijuana has a high potential for abuse, has no accepted medical use in the United States, and lacks an acceptable level of safety for use even under medical supervision. Therefore, the HHS recommended marijuana remain in Schedule I.”

However, although the DEA did not reschedule marijuana, it did change its policy to allow an expansion in the number DEA registered marijuana manufacturers. This change should allow researchers to conduct more studies on a larger variety of marijuana strains.

Making more marijuana available for research suggests the DEA understands the potential value of studying controlled substances. Its recent stance on kratom seems to align with that understanding.

Will the DEA make kratom illegal?

The DEA still may decide to place kratom on the Schedule I list. It is waiting on a recommendation from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It will also take comments from the public until December 1st. At that time, the DEA will reassess kratom’s status. In the meantime, kratom will remain legal at the federal level, despite six states already banning its.

The American Kratom Association is encouraging its members and visitors to its website to submit comments to the DEA before the December 1st deadline, but it did not give specific commenting instructions.

Solid data on kratom may be available soon. One kratom study has already begun at the University of Florida. Dr. Oliver Grundmann is researching the health impact of kratom and products derived from it. Perhaps information learned from this study will help inform the FDA and the DEA as to where kratom should rest on the list of controlled substances.

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