The Drug Enforcement Administration on Tuesday announced its intention to temporarily ban the chemicals contained in kratom, a popular herbal supplement that has been widely used as a way to self-treat chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, and a number of other conditions.
Kratom, a plant from Southeast Asia that activates some of the same receptors as opioids, can be easily purchased online and in smoke shops. Although consumers have embraced the supplement as a painkiller and in some cases as a replacement for opioids, physicians worry about users who turn to kratom to try to wean themselves off opioids without seeking professional help. They also worry that it may be adulterated, given how little the substance is regulated.
The Food and Drug Administration has been trying to crack down on the substance, banning its import and ordering seizures of illegally packaged kratom product. But because the substance is officially considered an herbal supplement, the FDA has had little power to regulate its contents. A handful of states have banned it as well.
Now, however, the DEA has announced plans to temporarily classify two of kratom’s psychoactive chemicals as Schedule 1—the same category in which heroin, LSD, marijuana, and ecstasy are listed. The two chemicals are called mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine. By banning the active chemicals, the DEA is making sure that both the plant and any synthetic versions of it are included in the new regulation.
The DEA can temporarily move substances to Schedule 1 for up to two years when it believes they present a public health crisis. A spokeswoman for the agency, Barbara Carreno, said that during that time the Department of Health and Human Services needs to study the substance in question.
If their studies find that it is indeed as much of a public health threat as the DEA suspected, then it will remain banned. If not, the substance will revert to being legal.
“It’s a very tragic day,” said Susan Ash, the founder and director of the American Kratom Association, an advocacy group that works to keep the substance legal.
The issue is more than just work-related for Ash, who used kratom to wean herself off opiates to treat the chronic pain caused by Lyme disease. She still takes kratom every day to help control her pain.
“This just ripped my quality of life right out from under me,” she said. “This is the plant that returned me to being a productive member of society, and I truly fear for my future, and I fear for all of the people who found kratom to be a solution for them to get off things like heroin. I foresee a large jump in the already epidemic proportions of opiate deaths in this country.”
Ash and other kratom advocates insist that the substance is no more addictive than coffee, and that as long as it is unadulterated, it is safe for adults to consume. They claim that it is impossible to overdose because consuming too much kratom will make you throw up.
Emergency room doctors and toxicologists, on the other hand, have seen kratom interact negatively with other drugs. In the most extreme cases, seizures have been reported.
“There needs to be some oversight as to what kind products are being sold in the interest of consumer safety,” Oliver Grundmann, a pharmacologist at the University of Florida, told STAT in late July, a month before the DEA’s announcement.
He added, though, that he is “not necessarily saying that everything related to the plant should be put in Schedule 1. We have seen the damage that that can do to a drug with promising pharmacological properties… For me it’s a death sentence. Once you put a plant and its ingredients into DEA Schedule 1, it’s very hard to do research on it, and it will become very hard to move forward with any positive developments because there is such a stigma associated.”
It was not immediately clear when the temporary ban would go into effect. The notice released Tuesday said the ban would take effect no sooner than the end of September, to give those who manufacture, distribute, or take kratom enough time to get rid of whatever they have.