Once again, the United States government is attempting to outlaw nature. The innocent Mitragyna speciosa plant is the newest enemy target in the war on plant drugs waged by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). On August 31, the DEA announced its intent to place kratom on the drug schedule as a Schedule I drug, meaning it has no accepted medical use and is highly dangerous and addictive. It would also mean the current possession and use of kratom would move to the black market.  

“Kratom” refers to the ground leaves of the M. speciosa plant, which is native to southeast Asia and parts of Africa. It is related to coffee and although not technically an opiate, it appears to function like one in the body and has been used by humans for pain management, to improve mood, and more recently, to beat opiate addiction.

The “active ingredient” in kratom is mitragynine. The key concept of an “active ingredient” in plant medicines is disputed by research showing the entourage effect of medical cannabis. The entourage effect brings into question the notion that a single compound is responsible for the entirety of a plant’s effects, even if the effects of other compounds aren’t immediately noticeable. The “active ingredient” in coffee is caffeine, although the the Coffea arabica plant (the most commonly consumed species) has over 1,000 potentially active compounds as well.

The medical potential of kratom is widely unknown. Plants are rarely studied for medical use in the United States, which is why there is never “enough research” to determine whether or not doctors can refer to them as “safe and effective” and recommend their use.

It’s nearly impossible to get a whole plant FDA approved; the cost averages about $500-million per new drug and is based on time-consuming clinical trials proving both the relative safety and efficacy of the “active ingredient” or combinations of “active ingredients” in a drug. An entity seeking to prove the efficacy of a drug via the FDA process must have the ability and motivation to invest at least half a billion dollars into the process.

THC was used in AIDS treatment, beginning in the 80s

In the case of cannabis, delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) has long been considered to be the “active ingredient”. When murmurs of medical use started coming out of the gay community during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s, THC was synthesized and FDA-approved for use in treating AIDS and wasting as the Schedule III drug Marinol®.

Botanical cannabis remained Schedule I. Patients using Marinol experienced unpleasant effects that suggested THC wasn’t the only active compound in cannabis. The naturally occurring compounds that didn’t create noticeable effects also had a purpose and led researchers to conclude all the compounds found in cannabis resin (cannabinoids, terpenes and flavanoids) worked synergistically to create their medical effects, aka “the entourage effect."

Regulators remain suspicious of plant medicine

Many drugs with fatal, debilitating or life-disrupting side effects are approved and in use today. Occasional deaths and unpleasant side effects are standard considerations when doctors assess the risks and benefits to the patients before prescribing. While these effects are tolerated in the realm of pharmaceutical medicine, they are viewed with the highest suspicion when associated with a plant medicine.

The DEA claims 14-16 deaths in the United States caused by kratom, but linking these deaths to kratom isn’t the whole story, and definitely a convenient narrative to support an all-out ban on kratom.

A 2016 literary review conducted by the Universiti Sains Malaysia looking at the traditional and nontraditional uses of kratom found that mitragynine was generally safe and that it wasn’t until kratom appeared on shelves in the last few years that any known deaths were ever reported.

Kratom deaths occurred when mixed with dangerous drugs

The review looked at 40 different studies to make its determinations. All the reported deaths were examined and found to have occurred when kratom was used in conjunction with other dangerous drugs. The study concluded that because of the history and common use more research is needed to understand the full potential and limitations of the plant in medical care.

Kratom has been used by peasants in southeast Asia, particularly Thailand, for millennia to improve mood, kill pain and stave off exhaustion.

It was also used as a painkiller in medical applications when opium was harder to find. The traditional consumption methods were either chewing the dried leaves or brewing them into tea. There are no recorded overdose deaths over these thousands of years of use when kratom was used alone (not in conjunction with other drugs) and in one of these natural methods of ingestion.

While not enough research exists on the pharmacology of an isolated dose of mitragynine, overuse can cause similar side effects as opioids, including nausea, drowsiness, dry mouth, hallucinations and potentially-fatal respiratory depression.

When used traditionally, in small doses, as a tea, powder or by chewing the dried leaves, a user would simply stop consuming at the sign of unpleasant effects. It seems the deaths and emergency room visits the DEA says prompted the move began happening only after kratom was packaged and reformulated with other substances as a “legal high” and placed on smoke shop shelves alongside “bath salts” and “spice”.

So who exactly would be affected stateside if the DEA succeeds with its Schedule I designation? People suffering from a wide range of afflictions from all walks of life, here are a few who are poised to become criminals if they continue to possess and use:

Adam Hahs, 38, Missouri, Cerebral Palsy

Hahs is a 38-year-old Baptist pastor, father and professional technology coordinator living with cerebral palsy.

“If the DEA gets their way, then I guess I would also be a felon,” Hahs says.

After many unsuccessful attempts to control his symptoms, he was introduced to kratom by a friend and herbalist. Before ingesting it he researched online. He says he has been using it for two years and says he has stopped taking his four prescribed pharmaceutical medications.

“The last two years have been the most productive of my adulthood; my anxiety is in check, my everyday aches and pains are minimal and my digestive system is settled. I fear what life will be like less than one month from today when my perfect medicine will be essentially stolen from me. I use that language because that’s how I view it, as though somebody, somewhere, who doesn’t know me or care about me decided that in spite of how it would impact me, that they were going to pursue their own short-sighted agenda,” Hahs concludes.  

Kevin (name changed to protect his identity), 25-35, Arizona, Opiate Addiction

Kevin had a difficult childhood and turned to drugs when he was a teenager. He became hooked on heroin after a friend showed him how to use it to self-medicate cocaine withdrawal. He was addicted for over a decade.

“The consequences of the abuse were very far reaching and extensive. I was suffering and determined to make everyone around me hurt just as badly,” Kevin says.

Kevin says he lost his best friend, a girlfriend and several friends to heroin and he used medical cannabis and kratom to get through the heroin withdrawal when he finally kicked the habit. He found organic kratom online, ordered it and consumed it in a tea.

“I had no come down from the kratom when I used it and no negative side effects. I have friends [who also had used heroin] that use just the leaves and say it takes the edge off a great deal. I experienced energy from it myself,” Kevin said.

Kayd Jayne, Oregon, Chronic Pain

Kayd Jayne is a self-employed landscape gardener who lives with chronic pain due to a severe injury. She was prescribed opiate painkillers which she says didn’t help her and left her “life, health and spirit suffering”. She says she successfully weaned herself off all pharmaceutical medications three years ago but that when then the pain got so bad she considered filling an Oxycodone prescription again. She decided to try kratom first.

Since 2013 it has become a “staple” in her everyday treatment. She uses powdered kratom daily with her morning coffee, at lunch with coffee and after work in a little water.

“I have lost 30 pounds and am at my ideal body weight now. I am happier, far more productive at work and at home. I take my dog on more walks, eat healthier, have less sugar cravings, drink less alcohol and most importantly sleep well, and that's huge for me,” she says. “Whole plant medicines are the way to go. Since I heard about the ban I have cut my daily consumption down by half to ration out what I have left. Soon I will stop using it daily and just save it for the really bad days.”

Marcie Cooper, RN, MSN, AHN-BC, 35-40, Colorado, Depression and Anxiety

Marcie Cooper began taking antidepressants at just 13-years-old.

“One day I realized that I had almost always felt depressed, even while taking the same antidepressants for almost 15 years. I grew up in the Prozac days, it had been forced on me all my life,” Cooper says.  

She says not only did they not work, but they made her feel mentally and physically uncomfortable. In 2013 she decided to wean herself off for good. She used various alternative therapies to help her through the symptoms including aromatherapy, meditation and other natural herbs.

“Then one day my licensed acupuncturist and herbalist sent me home with a bag of some kratom for making tea,” she said.

She says he told her to smart small, evaluate the dose, and work up to a dose that works best for her. This process is called “titration” and is also practiced with medical cannabis and various other plant medicines. She said at first it just made her smile, so much it made her jaw sore. She decreased the dose slightly.

“I found that basically giving myself a very small amount was a wonderful way to lift my spirit. I continued to use it until i was completely off prescribed drugs. I still don’t take any prescription drugs now and feel very grateful to the natural plant medicines that were able to free me being mentally and physically hooked on prescriptions that really did nothing but mask my inner sorrows… The government’s actions against plants with healing properties hurts patients. Recently, we thought this war on healing plants might be getting ready to take a turn, instead, they armored up and attacked us again.”

Kelly Divine, 44, Kentucky, Chronic Pain

Kelly Divine was hit by a drunk driver in 1992. Today she suffers from fibromyalgia, fainting spells and narcolepsy. After multiple surgeries she wound up in a wheelchair and could no longer hold a job. She developed anxiety, depression and PTSD. When she discovered kratom it changed her life and she formed an online group called Kratom United, which is spearheading an upcoming march on Washington.

“There is not one death from kratom alone. I am now off 12 medications out of 13 and have a life I can participate in now. Before kratom, I would pass out of have blackouts form all the medications I was prescribed. If the ban on kratom goes through, I will be back on medication. Being a zombie because of prescription medications and still being in pain is no way to live,” she concludes.  

Jeni Lee, 25-40, Oregon, Chronic Pain

Jeni Lee was prescribed Tramadol after a car accident four years ago. She says it worked great at first but over time because less effective. She used kratom to avoid withdrawal from the tramadol, boost her energy and allow her to function. It took nearly six months, Lee weaned off the opiates.

“Without kratom I was having nerve pain and it felt like shockwaves were washing through my body. I wanted to crawl out of my skin. Kratom relaxed me, helped me sleep and helped dampen the worst of the withdrawal effects,” Lee says. “I would [still] use kratom after the DEA ban. I think it is unconstitutional to make it a Schedule I drug. Kratom definitely has medical uses. Kratom and cannabis are plants and medicine and I feel I have a constitutional right as a patient to have safe access to both. It seems the DEA is determined to keep plant based medicines that help overcome addiction away from people. So, my question is… who are they really working for?”

Petition: https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/please-do-not-make-kratom-schedule-i-substance