The Question of Legality: Kratom

The U.S. is facing what may be known as the worst drug-related crisis it has ever endured, with numbers of those plagued by opiate addiction (mainly heroin) reaching record highs. Despite the improvements that have been made to help treat addicts — such as the influx of inpatient rehab centers or the increases in the funding of federally-backed medication-assisted treatment (MAT) facilities, for example — there remains the question of the effectiveness of these outdated solutions to the nation’s problem. The number of individuals in favor of the war on drugs is dropping as quickly as the addiction rate is rising, and with that comes the search for more effective treatment options. Enter: Kratom.

Mitragyna speciosa, commonly known as Kratom, is an evergreen tree indigenous to the tropics of southeast Asia. It is most commonly found in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea. The native peoples of this region have benefited from the pain-relieving properties of Kratom for hundreds of years, however, it’s popularity in recent years has skyrocketed due to its ability to ease withdrawal symptoms in opiate addicts.

The increase in popularity of this natural healer has opened the door to studies on the uses, effects, and side effects of Kratom. Through these studies, we have learned that the most relevant alkaloids contained within the tree’s leaves are most similar to those found within well-known hallucinogenic substances, such as LSD and psilocybin (magic mushrooms), as well as the aphrodisiac properties of yohimbine. When taken in low doses, Kratom tends to stimulate the nervous system by acting on receptors that respond to adrenaline. Adversely, higher doses lead to an opiate-like response by activating the opioid receptors within the body. It is because of this response that the instances of Kratom’s usage as a form of counteracting the symptoms of opiate withdrawal.

Much like the current MAT options buprenorphine (Methadone) and naltrexone (Suboxone), Kratom can come with negative side effects most have described as being very similar to that of heroin, Methadone, and Suboxone alike. Because we know very little about the long-term (and short) effects of the use of Kratom, the DEA has been trying for years to get the plant classified as a Schedule 1 substance. That would put it on the same plane as heroin and cocaine. As of now (May 2018) the DEA has been unable to schedule Kratom, however, the DEA’s shortcomings have not stopped some states from illegalizing the plant. So, where can you NOT purchase or possess Kratom? Indiana, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Vermont, Arkansas, Alabama and Washington D.C. are all zero-tolerance states, as well as Sarasota and San Diego Counties in Florida and California, respectively and the city of Denver, Colorado; Florida, Kentucky, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, and North Carolina are all among the states considering fully banning Kratom.

While it is impossible to say where the debate on whether or not to legalize (or illegalize, respectively) this highly potent leaf is going to end up, I think we can all agree that Kratom most certainly packs some highly favorable punches. Everything in medicine comes with both pros and cons. With that being said, much like the way we currently handle medications, the right answer will come with continued research, tests, and the discovery of scientifically-backed results.