Everything You Need to Know About Kratom

Shredded Kratom on Leaf
Photo by: g0d4ather/Shutterstock

Shredded Kratom on Leaf
Photo by: g0d4ather/Shutterstock
Keeping track of new drugs can be difficult, especially with the wealth of misinformation that’s usually spread about them. In this case, the drug in question is actually a very old one, but it’s making the media rounds again. Kratom is a drug that has been gaining traction in the U.S. among people who use it recreationally, as well as those who use it in a therapeutic capacity. It made headlines in 2016, when the Drug Enforcement Administration announced their plan to categorize kratom as a Schedule I drug. In the end, they backtracked from this plan, but the controversy over kratom remains.

What Is Kratom?

Kratom is a species of tropical tree native to Southeast Asia. Also known as mitragyna speciosa, it’s a distant relative of the coffee family. The drug is generally made with the leaves of the tree, though the bark is sometimes incorporated as well.

In areas where the tree grows, native cultures have used kratom as medicine for thousands of years. They would simply chew the leaves, with the intent of relieving pain in their bones and muscles. It has also been used to increase appetite and energy, and sometimes as an aphrodisiac. The leaves, or extracts from them, are also used in healing practices thanks to their analgesic properties. Kratom is something of a cure-all for these cultures, even being used to treat infections, cough, and diarrhea, among other ailments.

However, kratom has also caused problems in areas where it occurs naturally. In the 2010s, a disturbing new drug cocktail became popular with teens and young adults. It was tea-based and known on the street as 4×100. In addition to the tea and kratom, these cocktails contained Coca-Cola and cough syrup. This cocktail was a widespread problem in Thailand by the year 2012, and helped propel kratom to international notoriety.

What Does It Do?

Since kratom is relatively new to the world outside of Southeast Asia, there isn’t much scientific literature on how it actually operates within the human body. From a pharmacological standpoint, this drug is a bit of a mystery. What has been observed is quite intriguing, however. At low doses, kratom acts like a mild stimulant. But at higher doses, it has some opioid-like qualities and acts as a sedative.

Kratom is consumed all over the world thanks to these effects, which make it a relatively safe substitute for opioids. It’s reported to help manage pain and relieve the symptoms of opioid withdrawal. For many users, it provides life-saving pain reduction or significantly reduces the chance of relapsing into the use of powerful drugs like heroin or legally prescribed opioid painkillers.

The main attraction of kratom for medicinal purposes is its ability to stimulate the brain’s opioid receptors without triggering respiratory depression. Respiratory depression, also known as hypoventilation, means that you’re not able to breathe well enough to get the oxygen you need. Breathing slows and becomes less effective, leading to a buildup of C02. It’s one of the common side effects of opioid medications, and one of the leading causes of opioid-related deaths.

Naturally, people struggling with opioid addiction or chronic pain are attracted to kratom because it can deliver some of the same effects as a painkiller, without the most dangerous downsides: addiction and death. One of kratom’s unique properties is that if you take too much, you simply vomit it up and move on, drastically reducing the possibility of overdose.

Is Kratom Dangerous?

This is a tricky question. Federal agencies have responded with a resounding “yes,” but their approach characteristically lacks any nuance. It’s critical to distinguish legitimate kratom from the questionable products that line gas station shelves. These gas station pill packs hardly ever contain kratom alone. You’re more likely to find capsules filled with a mystery cocktail that contains a suspect amount of kratom mixed in with a variety of other substances. As there is no regulation on labeling, anyone who picks up one of these pill packets could be ingesting a whole lot more than they bargained for. These products are often marketed as a cheap, quick high, and because kratom itself isn’t particularly psychoactive, manufacturers pack capsules with other substances which are.

Most people agree that there’s a clear difference between these brightly colored bogus kratom products and pure, raw kratom in powdered form. The feds, however, make no such distinction in their crusade against the substance.

There have been some observed side effects to kratom that are worrisome, but instances of their occurrence are few and far between. Still, it’s good to bear them in mind. Side effects associated with kratom include:

  • Arrhythmia
  • Hostility, anger, and psychosis
  • Impaired memory
  • Seizure
  • Coma

More common side effects are jerky movement, dry mouth, and paranoia. In 2016, the DEA reported 30 total deaths associated with kratom worldwide. That’s an astonishingly low number for a drug they want to classify in Schedule I, and it doesn’t take into account the other substances found in the victims’ toxicology reports. Since kratom is often mixed with other drugs, it’s impossible to tell which of the deaths (if any) were solely attributable to kratom.

Is Kratom Regulated?

FDA Logo on Blurred Red Background
Photo by: Anucha Cheechang/Shutterstock
At this time, the laws governing kratom are few and far between. It is illegal in its native Thailand and Malaysia. The Thai government implemented the Kratom Act in 1943, a measure which made it illegal to plant the tree. This was a response to a spike in kratom use at a time when the price of opium was skyrocketing. The government was trying to control the opium market, and kratom was standing in the way of that. Since then, the Thai government has been close to legalization on three occasions: in 2004, 2009, and 2013. Kratom is currently categorized as a Schedule V drug, the lowest tier of scheduling which also includes marijuana.

In Malaysia, using kratom is prohibited, and punishable with a steep fine or up to 4 years of jail time. 16 countries, including Australia, Germany, and Sweden, ban the substance as well.

While the U.S. has not developed kratom prohibition on a federal level, a few states have taken matters into their own hands. Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Tennessee, and Wisconsin have all banned kratom, and other states are considering similar measures.

While the DEA backtracked on their attempt to classify kratom as a Schedule I, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took over this year. On November 14th, 2017, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb issued a statement about the “deadly risks associated with kratom.” This statement points out the fact that kratom hasn’t been studied very much to date, and that the FDA “is aware of reports of 36 deaths associated with the use of kratom-containing products.” He also pointed out that kratom use is associated with “serious side effects like seizures, liver damage, and withdrawal symptoms.”

Of course, this statement neglects to mention that only 6 of those 36 deaths occurred this year, and that reports of those serious side effects are incredibly few and far between. Astonishingly, the FDA statement also suggests that kratom may contribute to the expansion of the opioid epidemic despite its wide use as an addiction treatment aid.

The Bottom Line

There simply isn’t enough evidence to make a purely scientific claim on the efficacy and safety of kratom, so we must rely at this point upon anecdotal evidence. And most people’s stories involve kratom greatly enhancing quality of life, from easing pain to treating mood disorders like anxiety and depression. Kratom is usually reported to be as addictive as coffee, and produces mild symptoms upon the cessation of long-term use.

The FDA is pushing to make this substance illegal, but it doesn’t appear to be any more dangerous than marijuana. As long as consumers source their kratom from somewhere reputable and don’t trust questionable gas station offerings, it’s very unlikely they’ll experience the negative symptoms that come from kratom being mixed with other substances.

Like marijuana, kratom is just a plant that has been used safely and successfully through the ages. When used in moderation, it can be a beneficial supplement.

Article by: Spencer Grey