In recent years, kratom (pronounced kray-tum) has become a controversial substance in in the U.S. In fact, some people say it is THE most controversial drug in the country right now. There are two camps when it comes to this so-called herbal speedball. There are those who say it is extremely dangerous and should be outlawed by the federal government. And, then, there are those who swear by it as a legitimate herbal remedy with the power to treat a number of conditions.
Kratom has been named a “drug of concern” by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continues to regulate its distribution. Both agencies would like to ban the drug altogether. But, with people across the country insisting the drug might be beneficial in combatting the opioid epidemic, federal agencies have backed off the idea of a nationwide ban – at least for now.
What’s With All The Hoopla?
With a rich history rooted in Eastern culture, more people in the West are using kratom for a number of reasons. These include pain relief, the treatment of anxiety and depression, and the management of opioid withdrawal symptoms. Also, many people are abusing the drug recreationally. Some us it as a substitute for heroin or prescription painkillers like Fentanyl.
So, what’s the big deal? What is kratom? Why has it become the topic of such great debate? Does it really work? Is it a safe alternative to opioids? Can it help ease withdrawal symptoms? Let’s explore these topics at length and see what answers we can we come up with. In case you are abusing this powerful substance – or you are considering taking the stuff – we want you to have all the facts.
What Is Kratom?
Kratom is also known on the streets as thom, ketum, herbal speedball, biak-biak, ithang, and kahuam. To keep things simple, we will sometimes refer to it as “thom” in this article. Thom has become a popular drug of abuse in the United States. It is now considered one of the most talked about and controversial legal substances of our time.
Kratom is a tropical evergreen tree (formally known as “Mitragyna speciosa”) native to Southeast Asia – specifically Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea.
As far as plants go, it belongs in the coffee family “Rubiaceae,” and is technically classified as a simulant (although it is now considered an opioid in the United States…. but we’ll get to that). The tree can grow as high as 80 feet tall. It blooms luscious leaves and strange-looking yellow and orange flowers that look like rubber balls kids might play with.
People have been using the leaves of this plant for centuries for its psychoactive properties. When taken in low doses, it is said to act as a mild stimulant like caffeine. It increases alertness and physical energy, sharpens mental focus, and makes people more sociable. When taken in higher doses, users say it produces a sedative effect similar to heroin or prescription opioids. When used this way, it produces a euphoric, relaxed feeling of tranquility.
Want to learn more about this substance? Watch this video:
The History of Thom – The Stuff Goes Way Back
This botanical substance has made its way to the United States in greater numbers over the past twenty years. It continues to grow in popularity – both by people using it to catch a buzz and for medicinal purposes. However, thom is an age-old substance that has been used by people in Asian countries for centuries. It is still legal in most countries around the world.
The drug really grew in popularity and made a name for itself in the 1950’s in Thailand and Malaysia. It was especially common among those who performed difficult jobs that demanded rigorous physical labor. Workers chewed thom leaves to stimulate energy and relieve muscle aches, which increased productivity. It was also used as an herbal remedy for the treatment of Malaria, chronic cough, high blood pressure, diarrhea, and depression
Kratom was also used as a substitute for opium in Asian countries when it was in low supply. Furthermore, the stuff was used to reduce the pain of opioid withdrawal symptoms. (Countries in Southeast Asia are known for opioid addiction.) Quickly gaining a reputation as an herbal medicine, word of thom’s effects spread around the world and people began importing the drug to make a profit.
Because the substance became a popular drug of abuse in Thailand, the Thai government passed Kratom Act 2486 in 1943, which made the planting of thom trees illegal. Later, in 1979, Narcotics Act B.E. 2522 was passed in Thailand, which classified any form of the drug as illegal. While many in Thailand still use the drug illegally, consumption has gone down significantly since it was banned.
Nevertheless, that has not stopped Kratom from flooding the United States and becoming the focal point of much debate and controversy.
How Is Kratom Used?
Thom can be used a number of ways. Historically, people have chewed on the leaves of the plant, but that is not typical to users in the United States.
More commonly, it is sold in a pill or powder form. It can be brewed as a tea. Some bars and nightclubs serve alcoholic beverages laced with Kratom, although this is still very hush-hush. Only people “in the know” are able to get these kinds of drinks served up by their favorite bartender. (That is if the bar has the stuff readily accessible.)
Most companies market them as an herbal supplement. They sell capsules online, in stores that specialize in herbal remedies, local convenience stores, or in so-called “head shops.” There are three different strains of kratom – green vein, red vein, and white vein. Each one affects the user differently and has various pharmacological effects. For instance, the red vein is only produced in Thailand. Those who have used thom say that the red vein variety produces a more sedative effect. The green and white veins create a much more stimulating sensation.
Most people in the United States purchase the green vein. This is surprising because the argument against Kratom is that it used as an opioid substitute. You would think the drug would produce a more calming effect than that of a stimulant.
One dose of thom usually takes effect about 15 minutes after ingestion and lasts about four to six hours. A “proper dose” is difficult to determine, however. Most kratom products come without instructions or clear dosing information. Furthermore, when you purchase supplements, you have no way of knowing how much of the stuff is pure and how much of it is packed with additives.
Want to know what it’s like to be high on Kratom? Check out this article in the Washington Post where users tell all.
Is Kratom Addictive?
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), “like other drugs with opioid-like effects, kratom might cause dependence, which means users will feel physical withdrawal symptoms when they stop taking the drug.”
The Mayo Clinic reports that “in one study, people who took kratom for more than six months experienced withdrawal symptoms similar to those that occur after opioid use. Over time, people who use kratom may develop cravings for it and need the same medications that are used to treat opioid addiction, such as buprenorphine (Buprenex) and naloxone (Narcan, Evzio).”
Some users who have used the drug in excess for long periods of time have reported withdrawal symptoms when they have stopped taking the drug cold turkey. Symptoms include:
- Muscle spasms
- Muscle aches
- The inability to sleep (insomnia)
- Mood swings and irritability
- Aggression and hostility
- Runny nose
- Uncontrolled jerky movements
- Stomach upset
- Change in appetite
- Cravings for more of the drug
Reports indicate that Kratom withdrawal is not nearly as intense as it is for someone who is hooked on heroin. But, it is unpleasant nonetheless. While some say the detox process is similar to quitting sugar, caffeine, or other herbal supplements; others say thom withdrawal is a force to be reckoned with. In either case, it is ironic that many take this drug as an alternative to opioid drugs – or to manage withdrawal – and end up going through withdrawal symptoms anyway.
What Are The Side Effects Of Kratom?
While some insist that thom is a miracle drug, we disagree. To us, a miracle drug would have absolutely no side effects. Someone could take the drug, experience the benefits, and have no ill effects. That is not the cause with this substance. Many who have taken the drug say it makes them sick and even mimics the withdrawal symptoms of opioids.
If you make the decision to take this substance, you may experience the following kratom side effects:
- Sleep disturbances, including insomnia or nightmares
- An increased feeling of stress or anxiety in your body
- Dehydration or a feeling of unquenchable thirst no matter how much water you drink
- Dizziness or a change in your equilibrium
- Lethargy or a lack of motivation to accomplish daily tasks
- Extreme physical discomfort without being able to pinpoint a source of pain
- Nausea or vomiting
- A feel that performing even the simplest physical task can be exhausting
- Muscle weakness
- Stomach cramps
- Respiratory problems or difficulty breathing
- Rapid heartrate
- Possible seizures
- Drug has potential to produce a psychotic episode
Some people have reported having terrifying experiences using this drug, including sudden seizures, hallucinations, and mental health issues. Like any other drug, once the effects of Kratom having taken hold of the brain, there is nothing to do but allow enough time to pass until the drug stops working. This is a very risky proposition.
What Are The Long-Term Effects of Kratom?
Using any drug for an extended period of time is bound to cause some long-term effects. Thom is no different. The use of this substance can interrupt the body’s natural processes. This can lead to a number of troubling outcomes. Here are just a few:
- Total loss of appetite, which can lead to malnourishment and extreme weight loss
- Insomnia, sleep disturbance, and nightmares
- Darkening of the skin
- Dehydration, which can cause dry mouth and other complications
- Migraine headaches
- Frequent and even painful urination
- Psychosis, which includes hallucinations, delusions, and mental confusion (in extreme cases)
There is still a lot we don’t know about kratom. We have listed just a few of the long-term effects that we know about. There is not an extensive body of evidence gathered from scientific research. It is quite possible that this drug is much worse for the human body than we know. It could cause serious health conditions that would make the risk for using the drug far outweigh the potential benefits.
How Does Kratom Affect The Brain?
While there are more than 25 alkaloid compounds in this substance, two compounds in particular are of interest – mitragynine and 7-α-hydroxymitragynine. These directly interact with the µ- (Mu) receptor, which is the most well-known opioid receptor site found in the brain.
Mitragynine makes up at least 66 percent of the total alkaloid content in kratom. It is a partial opioid-receptor agonist like Suboxone, which is commonly given to opioid addicts to help them kick their habit after becoming physically dependent. This is why so many are convinced that thom is effective in treating addiction.
An “agonist” is a type of chemical that binds to a certain receptor site in the brain to activate it. A “partial agonist” binds to a receptor site without activating it. This means a partial opioid agonist will bind to the Mu receptor site and still produce analgesic properties (pain relief) without aggressively “lighting up” the receptor. In theory, this prevents a user from becoming physically dependent on the potentially addictive substance being introduced to the body.
7-α-hydroxymitragynine is currently being researched for its potential as a phenomenal pain-reliever. Some researchers suggest that 7-α-hydroxymitragynine shows promise for being significantly more effective than morphine for treating pain while limiting the danger of respiration depression. Respiratory depression is what usually causes an opioid overdose death. This is shallow breathing that can become so slow that it stops altogether.
Does Kratom Really Help With Opioid Withdrawal?
There is currently no scientific evidence available that proves thom is safe or effective for the purpose of relieving opioid withdrawal symptoms. Perhaps this is because the drug has not been thoroughly studied in this context. However, many people across the United States have touted this substance as a miracle cure for opioid addiction.
While there may be limited research on this topic, those who have taken thom for opioid withdrawal say their personal experience speaks for itself. They say the drug helped ease painful withdrawal symptoms like head-to-toe body aches, nausea, vomiting, chills, and sweats.
One Recovering Opioid Addict Shares His Experience
All the controversy aside, the question remains – is kratom a safe alternative to opioids like heroin and Oxycodone? Does it REALLY help with withdrawal? Let’s here from Tom K., a computer programmer who lives in San Diego, Calif. He swears the stuff saved his life.
“I was hooked on heroin. I was actually shooting the junk. I wanted to quit so badly, but I just couldn’t deal with the withdrawal symptoms,” Tom said. “Then, a friend of mind read about Kratom online and that it could potentially lessen withdrawal and cravings. I figured, ‘what the hell?’”
Tom says he ordered capsules online from a company that promised the stuff was 100 percent natural Kratom with no additives.
“I made the decision to stop the heroin and start taking the pills. I had a friend come stay with me for a week to kind of supervise my withdrawal and make sure everything was okay. The first three days were kind of rough, but nothing like it was when I tried to quit cold turkey,” Tom said. “After seven days of taking the pills, I was totally out of the woods. I took the pills every day for a month and then I weaned off the pills over the next four weeks. I havent used them since and I have been off heroin for two years.”
Tom admits that he doesn’t give thom full credit for his recovery.
“I sought help through Narcotics Anonymous. Having the social support of other recovering addicts has made all the difference in my life. But, I didn’t have to go to rehab or trade heroin for Methadone. For me, that was definitely a plus.”
Not Everyone Has A Great Time With Thom – Let’s Hear From Someone Else
Madeline K. of Dallas, Texas says her ex-boyfriend used to abuse Kratom. He was exposed to the substance at a nightclub that sold alcoholic beverages laced with the stuff. He loved the way it made him feel so he would purchase the powder online and make the drinks at home.
“When he would drink that garbage, he would get super weird. Like, his body would jerk uncontrollably and he would just say the strangest things,” she said. “The next day, he would be impossible to deal with. He would be really aggressive and mean to me and yell and scream. But, by the end of the night, he would be drinking that crap again and calm down.”
Madeline is convinced the drug is addictive and said she ultimately ended the relationship because her ex wouldn’t stop abusing the stuff.
“After six months of being on his emotional rollercoaster, I was outta there,” she said. “I begged him to stop using it. He would quit for awhile, but then he would just go right back. He would try to do it behind my back, but I always knew because of those terrible body jerks. I don’t care what anyone says, this stuff is bad news and I know people can get hooked on it. I saw it for myself.”
If you want to know what other users are saying about thom, check out this thread on Reddit.
Is Kratom Illegal?
We’ve talked at length about this drug – how it affects the brain, what to expect if you take it, and the short and long-term effects. We’ve also mentioned that some people swear by it as a solution to opioid withdrawal. Now, let’s briefly talk about the controversy surrounding kratom.
Currently, this substance is against the law in six states – Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Tennessee, Vermont, Wisconsin and in the District of Columbia. It has also been banned in at least three major metropolitan cities — Denver, San Diego and Sarasota, Florida. Legislation has been considered in at least six other states, including Florida, Kentucky, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and North Carolina. Many others are considering a statewide ban.
It’s anyone’s guess if there will be a federal ban on Kratom in the coming years. The DEA almost had its way and outlawed thom two years ago. Due to publish outcry, this didn’t happen. However, many suspect the DEA does intend to make this substance completely illegal across the United States. Let’s talk about the DEA and FDA’s current policies regarding this herbal speedball.
Just Two Years Ago, The DEA Planned An All-Out Ban On Kratom
In 2016, the DEA announced its intention to place the active materials in the kratom plant into Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act “in order to avoid an imminent hazard to public safety.”
At the time, the DEA said it was basing its decision on three factors: (1) it has a high potential for abuse (2) it has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States and (3) it has a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision. According to the DEA, “these three factors constitute a Schedule I controlled substance according to the Controlled Substances Act passed by Congress in 1970.”
The DEA has named thom as a drug of concern because it has been linked to at least 30 deaths and resulted in a significant increase in the number of calls to poison control.
The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that the number of calls for Kratom increased tenfold from 26 in 2010 to 263 in 2015. The DEA also states that “because the identity, purity levels, and quantity of these substances are uncertain and inconsistent, they pose significant adverse health risks to users.”
The Argument For The Safe Use of Regulated Kratom
Upon the DEA’s 2016 announcement, thom proponents joined together to voice their opposition to the decision. Public demonstrations were held around the country with many of them being led by the American Kratom Association (AKA). Additionally, letters from Congress were drafted and a petition that included more than 142,000 American signatures was submitted. As a result, the agency put the ban on hold. (Wow, democracy actually works sometimes!)
The AKA and other advocates of thom insist that making this substance illegal will lead to more opioid-related deaths.
“We need every asset to dig our way out of the deep hole that is the opioid crisis,” said addiction expert Dr. Jack Henningfield, “We need to find a path for kratom to continue to realize its benefits to help keep [it] available as a path away from opioids, and to not replace the legal marketplace with the black market that will surely emerge in the vacuum of a lawful market. It makes no sense to take [this substance] out of the equation and risk avoidable opioid epidemic deaths.”
He added, “It is important to understand, and the FDA’s own data confirms this, that there has not been a single verified report of an acute poisoning death that we can say with certainty was caused by kratom use. Most of the kratom-associated deaths occurred in people who had various pre-existing illnesses and/or were taking multiple substances with known serious health risks that may have been significant contributors to or causes of the reported deaths. The contribution of kratom, if any, to these deaths, is not known.”
Henningfield has since released an extensive report that refutes the DEA’s claim that thom is dangerous.
If you’re interested to hear more about the pro-kratom argument, check out this video:
The FDA Has Announced That Kratom Is Considered An Opioid Substance
Just because the DEA backed off its 2016 ban does not mean there won’t be one in the near future. In February 2018, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D. announced in a public statement that scientific evidence now proves there are opioid compounds in kratom. This makes FDA approval of thom supplements extremely unlikely and a federal ban possible. The FDA says the properties in thom expose users to the risks of addiction, abuse, and dependence.
“We have been especially concerned about the use of kratom to treat opioid withdrawal symptoms, as there is no reliable evidence to support the use of kratom as a treatment for opioid use disorder and significant safety issues exist,” Gottlieb said. “We recognize the need and desire for alternative treatments for both the treatment of opioid addiction, as well as the treatment of chronic pain. The FDA stands ready to evaluate evidence that could demonstrate a medicinal purpose for kratom. However, to date, we have received no such submissions and are not aware of any evidence that would meet the agency’s standard for approval.”
While many argue that even if kratom is dangerous, it is not nearly as dangerous as heroin or prescription painkillers like Oxycontin. In terms of opioid drugs, this one pales in comparison to harder drugs, which are killing tens of thousands of people a year. Many say the FDA and DEA are way off in their approach to this substance and should rethink their policies.
The Problem With Unregulated Kratom Products
Those who say thom should be used as a harm reduction strategy in the wake of the ongoing opioid epidemic have some valid points. However, when a substance like this is marketed and sold without FDA approval, there are bound to be problems – and there already have been.
In May of 2018, a total of 199 people in 41 states were infected with Salmonella found in kratom products. Thirty-eight percent of those afflicted with Salmonella poisoning were hospitalized. Thankfully, no deaths were reported. As a result of the outbreak, 26 different products were recalled by Triangle Pharmanaturals, one of several manufacturers whose products were contaminated.
The FDA has expressed concern about unregulated Kratom products, saying that of 66 samples analyzed from distributors and retail points of interest, 33 tested positive for one or more strains of Salmonella. If you’re thinking about purchasing this substance in the near future, you might want to think again. With absolutely no regulation or federal oversight, it’s likely that an outbreak like this may happen again.
The FDA Continues To Crackdown On Kratom Distributors
Because thom is still legal in most of the U.S., the FDA is going after companies that make unproven claims about the effectiveness of this substance. In May of 2018, the FDA issued warning letters to three major distributors across the United States for illegally selling unapproved thom products. Their argument was that these companies were promoting their products for the treatment of opioid addiction and withdrawal with no scientific evidence to back those claims.
“Despite our warnings that no kratom product is safe, we continue to find companies selling kratom and doing so with deceptive medical claims for which there’s no reliable scientific proof to support their use,” said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D. in an official statement. “As we work to combat the opioid epidemic, we cannot allow unscrupulous vendors to take advantage of consumers by selling products with unsubstantiated claims that they can treat opioid addiction.”
He added, “Using products with unsubstantiated claims may prevent those addicted to opioids from seeking treatments that have been demonstrated to be safe and effective. Reliance on products with unsubstantiated claims may delay their path to recovery and put them at greater risk of addiction, overdose and death.”
What Does The Future Hold For Kratom?
In a time where 115 people are dying every day from an opioid overdose, the country is in desperate need of a solution. Many believe the country has already found its solution – and it’s called kratom. However, there is still a lot we don’t know about this drug. One thing we do know is that there is currently no evidence that shows it is safe and effective for treating opioid withdrawal.
Perhaps scientists will find a way to prove its benefits so that it can be used legally to end the suffering of opioid addicts. Maybe the DEA will ban the stuff and start arresting users. Only time will tell what will happen to this herbal speedball in the months and years to come. One thing is sure, though – we haven’t heard the last of kratom. This is only the beginning.