The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has waged war on a new enemy, and drug policy reform advocates are not going to be happy about it. Bringing out its big guns, the agency has filed a notice of intent to slap a Schedule 1 classification on a plant called kratom, condemning it to outlaw status along with the likes of heroin and crystal meth.
Schedule 1 is only applied to substances that are deemed to have a high potential for abuse and no medical applications. In its report, the DEA claims that kratom, and more specifically its active alkaloids mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragine, “pose an imminent hazard to public safety.” Yet with no genuine scientific research having been conducted into the plant’s effects on humans, some say this conclusion is unfair, and could even deprive the world of a useful treatment for drug addiction.
Kratom is a plant that grows in Southeast Asia, and can be consumed as a powder, in capsules, or as a liquid. It is said to produce opioid-like effects, due to the fact that both mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragine bind to mu opioid receptors in the central nervous system, leading to a numbing of pain sensations.
Schedule 1 denotes drugs that have a high potential for abuse and no therapeutic value, and is applied to substances such as heroin and crystal meth. Alex Malikov/Shutterstock
However, unlike other opioid drugs such as heroin, kratom’s ingredients have been shown in studies involving rodents to be non-addictive and to produce none of the behavioral side-effects normally associated with these narcotics. For this reason, the plant is seen by some as the perfect tool for heroin addicts attempting to get clean, as it stops them from experiencing withdrawal symptoms without reinforcing their physical dependence on the drug.
Yet this does not necessarily mean that kratom is harmless. For starters, 7-hydroxymitragine has been found to be a stronger painkiller than morphine, which means that taking too much could potentially be dangerous. However, the bottom line is that until more research is conducted using humans rather than rodents, we simply won’t know how safe kratom really is.
In the meantime, the DEA has cited several reported incidents of negative health effects resulting from kratom use, including several deaths – although the evidence for these claims is not particularly strong. For example, one of the studies mentioned by the DEA describes the death of a 17-year-old heroin addict who was known to have used kratom, but does not directly blame the plant for his death, instead saying that he died as a result of “possible kratom toxicity.”
All in all, it appears that the DEA has been a little too hasty in outlawing this herbal supplement, although in an email to Gizmodo, a representative of the agency did concede that the measure was only intended to give scientists time to conduct more research into kratom’s effects, rather than permanently ban it. However, as history shows, being labelled as a Schedule 1 substance is more or less equivalent to being thrown into a black hole, as very few drugs ever make a comeback once they’ve been classified.
Because kratom binds to opioid receptors but is not addictive, it is sometimes used by heroin addicts attempting to break their habit. Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley/Shutterstock