What’s the Deal with Kratom?

Dried Kratom in Capsules
Photo by: Iryna Imago/Shutterstock

Kratom has been heavily discussed in the news recently, stirring media with reports regarding responsible use. Kraken? Krampus? Curtain? No, kratom.

Release the Kratom

Native to Southeast Asia, including Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia, is kratom—a tree that produces leaves that has several body-altering properties. Similar to cannabis, kratom has been used as an herbal drug for years.

Folk medicine credits the plant as one with many hats: a high dose is sedative, a low dose is stimulating; additionally, kratom is taken as a recreational drug, pain killer, and treatment for ailments such as opiate addiction, arthritis, diarrhea, fibromyalgia, and restless leg syndrome.

Consumption

Kratom is taken in several forms. Traditionally, the leaves are chewed fresh, after removing the large, stringy vein running down the middle. Sometimes the plant's leaves are dried before chewing, which can result in toughness.

Another popular method is drying the leaves, then crushing them into a fine powder—not only is this method of consumption easier, it's also versatile. Kratom powders are often mixed into various liquids, from water to fruit juice to chocolate milk, depending on taste preferences. From there, the list of additive opportunities is nearly endless: applesauce, teas, yogurts, and vitamin capsules can all be spiced up with a little kratom powder.

While it is possible to smoke kratom, it is not a recommended method of consumption, as burning the leaf is a lengthy process. Instead, it's possible to go through an extraction process that creates a resin-like concentrate; it's made by evaporating kratom tea water, leaving behind small pellets that are either swallowed whole or later re-dissolved back into its original tea form. Mixing kratom tea with everyday flavors (like black or herbal) usually helps to enhance the taste.

Effects

Hands Holding Kratom Leavers
Photo by: Rattiya Thongdumhyu/Shutterstock
Kratom is one-of-a-kind with its ability to produce both stimulating and calming effects. Lower to moderate doses usually lead to stimulation—including energy, alertness, sometimes enhanced sexual energy, motivation, boosted mood, and an overall buzz—while higher intake tends to be sedating—including sleepiness, relaxation, calm, lethargy.

Stimulation leads to enhanced friendliness, talkativeness, and social skills; these symptoms are similar to caffeine, which is more of a cognitive boost than a physical. At the sedative level, senses are slightly dulled. As a result, the body is calm, pleasantly (and quietly) content, and as close to a dream-like state as one can be while awake. Sometimes there are side effects of nausea, itching, or sweating. But usually lying down will lead to increased happiness: a "waking dream state" is known to place users with one foot in reality and one foot in dreamland, and it has a reputation for being extraordinarily agreeable.

Kratom is known to soothe physical ailments and is often taken as a natural form of relief. It is especially popular for aiding with aches and bodily pain.

Use is often equated to the effects of opiate drugs. According to The Kratom User's Guide, kratom "contains alkaloids that act as opiate receptor agonists... and has a similar mechanism of action as many opiate pain medications." In this case, however, kratom is not considered addictive, and is often used as a resource to overcome opiate addiction. Occasional recreational use will not be habit-forming, but regular everyday use can lead to irresponsible use.

About 60-90 minutes after ingestion on a full stomach, kratom starts to kick in; it takes around 30-40 minutes on an empty tummy, and a little longer for capsules to be broken down within the body. Kratom's effects typically last between five and six hours.

Disclaimer

There are specific risks associated with kratom, as will all recreational drugs. Pregnant women should stay away; there are not studies testing the safety of kratom during pregnancy, so err on the side of caution. Driving under the influence of kratom, as with cannabis and alcohol and all drugs, is never okay—sleepiness, even when experiencing a stimulated high, can strike at any time and lead to fatal events. In the same vein, it's important to stay away from dangerous scenarios or operating machinery—say no to power tools, climbing to tall heights, or even turning on the stove.

Chronic daily use can lead to negative results. Known negatives include liver toxicity, respiratory depression (the leading cause of death in opiate use), and cases of salmonella (specific to the US). It is possible to overdose, and overdoses of kratom can be fatal.

To be safe, users should avoid taking a strong dosage their first time trying kratom, in order to test their tolerance and sensitivity to the plant's effects. Careful, responsible use is vitally important.

Legality

This plant is illegal in Thailand, Denmark, Malaysia, and Australia. In the US, kratom is legal in most states, but laws are changing in each state rapidly, so be sure to check you State’s laws.

Between 2010 and 2015, there was an increase in reports of kratom-related poisoning in the US; during this period, the plant was commonly marketed as a dietary supplement. In response in 2016, the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) moved to ban the sale of kratom, citing the plant as a hazard to public safety. Their original plan moved to classify kratom as a Schedule 1 drug, which is the same category as ecstasy, heroin, LSD, and marijuana (on a federal level, of course).

Almost immediately after, members of Congress opted for a delay on the decision, hoping to get public input on the ban. With activists preaching the positive uses of kratom, the DEA withdrew their intent to criminalize the herb.

Then, in November of 2017, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) came out with further concerns—including sickness and death—coming from continued kratom use in the US and stated that that there were no FDA-approved uses for kratom. In February of 2018, the Commissioner of the FDA stated that kratom should not be used at all—either recreationally or medically.

Kratom is an herb that, when used in moderation, is similar to cannabis in a lot of ways—it leads to both stimulating and relaxing highs, helps to heal ailments, and brings euphoria. However, when used incorrectly, overdoses and chronic use can lead to serious consequences. Release the kratom—responsibly.