According to documents obtained by STAT, in October of last year, the United States Department of Health and Human Services had sent a letter to the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in which the department recommended that the DEA place two substances found in Mitragyna speciosa, a plant commonly known as Kratom, into Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. Placing Kratom and the two primary psychoactive compounds derived from the plant into Schedule I would place it alongside drugs such as heroin, marijuana, LSD, and other drugs, which Congress and the DEA have determined have a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical value.
Kratom is the leaf of the evergreen tree Mitragyna speciosa. The tree is native to Southeast Asia, where it has been used as a medicinal herb for hundreds, and possibly thousands, of years. It is most often used as a painkiller, a stimulant, and to elevate mood. Many people also use Kratom to aid them in getting off of and staying off of opiates and opioids. Reports of its usefulness in treating opiate addiction date back to the 1800s, when it was used as a substitute by opium addicts in places like Malaysia and Thailand.
In February of this year, the United States Food and Drug Administration declared that Kratom was not safe and effective for the treatment of any condition. There are, however, no recorded cases of death caused by a lethal overdose of Kratom alone. The Food and Drug Administration points to 44 deaths as proof there are safety issues with Kratom, but virtually all of those deaths involve people who consumed Kratom along with other drugs. One of the 44 deaths cited by the Food and Drug Administration includes a man who died after falling out of a window.
The first major escalation of the United States federal government’s war on Kratom began two years ago, when the DEA announced, on August of 2016, its intent to place Kratom in Schedule I. American Kratom consumers and vendors banded together and fought the DEA’s effort to ban the leaf. The movement to stop the banning of Kratom even picked up support in both houses of Congress. A group of Representatives and a group of Senators both sent a letter to the DEA urging them not to place Kratom in Schedule I.
In October of 2016, the DEA withdrew its intent to use its emergency scheduling powers to control Kratom and responded with an unprecedented request for public comments about whether the DEA should move forward with the ban or not. By the time the period for submitting public comments had ended on December 1st, 2016, more than 23,000 people submitted comments, and over 99% of the public comments opposed making Kratom a controlled substance.
Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration and the Center for Disease Control conducted a joint investigation which led to the seizure of several shipments of Kratom that were imported into the United States. The Kratom was seized as part of a joint investigation into a salmonella outbreak which had affected a few hundred Kratom users. The Food and Drug Administration has also this year declared the herb to be an opioid, though research has shown the compounds in Kratom do not act like traditional opioids. “Compounds in kratom make it so it isn’t just a plant, it’s an opioid,” the Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, Scott Gottlieb, said in a statement.
In a newly released document, which is dated October 17, 2017, the Department of Health and Human Services recommended that Kratom’s primary active constituents, mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine, be put into Schedule I. Doing so would create a defacto ban on Kratom, as the leaf would now legally be a container of controlled substances. The department did not recommend the tree itself be controlled. Placement into Schedule I would also hamper and virtually end medical and scientific research into Kratom. A ban would likely send many users back to using street drugs or pharmaceuticals. It would likely also create a thriving black market for Kratom. It should be noted that Kratom is already being sold on darknet markets. It is already illegal in Australia, as well as in some countries where it grows natively, such as Thailand. Kratom was originally banned in Thailand because it was used as a substitute for opium, which caused the government to collect less tax money due to the decline in opium sales.