Update, Oct. 12: The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is withdrawing its intent to classify Kratom, a leaf indigenous to Southeast Asia, as a Schedule 1 drug and opening a public comment period to last until Dec. 1.
After the DEA announced it would place the plant alkaloids onto the most restrictive classification of drugs there was a massive public outcry. In addition to a WhiteHouse.gov petition with more than 140,000 signatures, elected officials expressed concerns that banning the substance could have unintended consequences. Kratom users say it helps curb pain and get off prescription opioids.
On Oct. 12, the DEA also asked the Food and Drug Administration to expedite the medical and scientific research on the substance.
Update, Sept. 30: The kratom ban, which had been scheduled to go into effect Friday, is not happening -- at least for now, according to a Drug Enforcement Administration spokesperson. The DEA says to check its website for updates.
Update, Sept. 29: Friday the Drug Enforcement Administration will put kratom on its list of most severely prohibited drugs — in the same category as Marijuana and Heroin. The Schedule 1 classification will make possessing or selling the botanical substance illegal.
The DEA argues it is a dangerous supplement, ripe for abuse and addiction. People who use kratom credit it with helping them get clean and curb pain.
People like Karisa Rowland of Cleburne, Texas.
After years of alcohol and prescription drug abuse, Rowland, 44, has turned her life around. She’s been clean, has a good relationship with her ex-husband and son, and hasn’t been in pain. She credits a fine green powder called kratom.
— KERA News (@keranews) September 29, 2016
She thinks the adulteration of kratom — the extracts and concoctions sold at smoke shops — are what led to its downfall.
“I think the smoke shops got the idea that [kratom] hits on the opioid receptors and they started saying, ‘hey we can market this as the latest legal high!’ Because the K2 -- the street drugs, the synthetic stuff -- that’s getting outlawed right and left, as well it should be. And you get some teenager who wants to go in there and get high and they go in there and they purchase the extract, down the whole bottle and you don’t know what’s been in there.”
Original story from Sept. 14:
A traditional herbal medicine made from a tree native to Asia is about to be banned in the U.S. It’s called kratom, and various forms of it are sold in smoke shops and on the internet.
By the end of this month, kratom will be classified as a Schedule I drug — in the same category with marijuana and LSD. Many kratom users are upset that a supplement they credit with saving their lives will soon be illegal.
At 35 years old, Karisa Brunken Rowland says she felt like a zombie. She’d made it through six spinal fusions and a spinal cord injury, and was coping with her chronic pain with pills.
It started with hydrocodone. Then fentanyl patches. Then oxycodone. And when all that ran out, she’d have a drink. Rowland relapsed, went on disability and had to move out — leaving her 6-year-old son with his father.
She hit bottom after getting picked up for a DUI in Cleburne, about a half-hour south of Fort Worth, for driving under the influence.
“I'm looking around and I'm watching raw [sewage] flow through a vent in the floor and I'm thinking, 'Wow. This has to stop. I'm going to end up dead,'" she says.
In the past few years, Rowland has turned her life around. She’s been clean, has a good relationship with her ex-husband and son and hasn’t been in pain.
She credits a fine green powder called kratom.
Kratom will be illegal by the end of September
Kratom is made from the leaves of a tree native to Southeast Asia that is a relative of the coffee plant. Farmers and indigenous people have used it for hundreds of years as both a stimulant to increase work output and also at the end of the day as a way to relax, according to David Kroll, a pharmacologist and medical writer.
The leaves are often brewed like a tea, or crushed and mixed with water. In the U.S., kratom has become popular among people coping with chronic pain and others trying to wean themselves off opioids or alcohol.
Rowland is one of them.
Since 2014, she has woken up every morning, removed a bag of kratom powder from her fridge, put about a teaspoon in a mug and drunk it.
Today, though, she has no kratom.
Kratom users are angry and in pain
In late August, the Drug Enforcement Administration announced its intent to classify kratom in the same category as heroin and LSD by the end of September. Since then, the place Rowland orders from online has been sold out. Rowland says she's in pain and she is angry. She has plenty of company.
In a YouTube video, a veteran shakes a bottle he says contains prescription opioids he has been given for pain. "This," he says, "is not Schedule I."
He continues: "Do I seem angry? Yes. Because you're taking away a right that I fought for. When I did my tour in Iraq, I fought for my right to be in America and be able to help myself, to cure myself. I'm not talking about snorting cocaine, shooting up heroin, I'm not even talking about puffing a joint. I'm talking about brewing some tea leaves, having a sip and feeling better."
DEA is concerned for public safety
People have uploaded hundreds of videos talking about why they drink or swallow kratom pills — veterans coping with PTSD, recovering alcoholics, people with fibromyalgia. A petition on WhiteHouse.gov to keep it legal has more than 118,000 signatures.
Even the Drug Enforcement Administration has been hammered with calls, says special agent Melvin
"The response has been unexpected," he says. "People calling us in opposition of our plan to temporarily schedule kratom as a Schedule I, due to it not having a medicinal use."
Patterson says the move to schedule kratom come out of a concern for public safety. Between January 2010 and December 2015, U.S. poison control centers received 660 calls related to kratom, he says.
Most people obtain kratom online
In Texas, there have only been 17 kratom calls so far this year, but Kristina Domanski, with the North Texas Poison Center, says the numbers are creeping up.
"Most people obtain this online," Domanski says. "Because this is not necessarily legal or regulated, you don't know what you're buying. There's no quality control. It's not a supplement [that's] regulated. You don't know what you're buying, so there's a risk that it's not kratom; it could be mixed with something else."
The DEA attributed 15 deaths to kratom between 2014 and 2016. Critics call it a legal heroin, ripe for abuse and addiction.
The science behind kratom is still evolving
Kroll, the pharmacologist, says classifying this plant as a dangerous drug is going overboard.
"Kratom being lumped in with other opioids is both unfair and unscientific," he says. "It glosses over the subtleties of how the main chemical in kratom actually works."
The main chemical is mitragynine. It binds to some of the same receptors as opioids, providing some pain relief and feelings of euphoria, but, Kroll says, not the same high. And the chemical doesn't cause the same, sometimes deadly, side effects as opioids, such as respiratory depression.
"It turns out mitragynine has a very low risk of respiratory depression," Kroll says. "It also appears that it's very difficult to at least get animals, get mice addicted to 'mitra' — either with the herb or with the pure chemical."
Advocates fear kratom users could return to opioids or alcohol
So what about the people who died?
Fourteen of the 15 people also had other drugs or illegal substances in their systems. Advocates for keeping kratom legal also point out that opioid abuse kills tens of thousands of people every year.
Kroll worries an outright kratom ban could push people back to opioids or alcohol. And, he says, it would delay scientists' researching the alleged risks of kratom and anecdotal benefits of the herb.
Kratom user Rowland is trying to get her friends and kratom users to speak out along with her. She has already sent a letter to Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz seeking support.
"I'm the one in pain," Rowland says. "The people making these laws, they're not the ones going through this pain; they're not the ones whose families have broken up. I found life and I have no intention of letting it go."
Rowland says if drinking kratom means becoming a criminal, so be it.