On the same day that U.S. President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 111 federal inmates who were mostly in prison for low-level drug crimes—a move some observers interpreted as symbolic of his fight to end the War on Drugs—his administration, in fact, announced its intention to expand the war.
The Drug Enforcement Agency said on Aug. 31 that it will temporarily categorize the popular plant kratom as a “Schedule I” drug, alongside LSD, heroin, and marijuana, starting Sept. 30; this means it has "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” But the move has drug policy advocates crying foul, saying it could jeopardize the future of a plant that’s shown early promise in providing pain relief and combating opioid addiction.
"We're at a place in drug policy where politicians are talking about ending criminalization and moving towards a health-based approach, but then at the same time, when there's a drug that they haven't heard of before, the immediate reaction is to prohibit it first and ask questions later," Jag Davies, director of communications strategy for nonprofit group the Drug Policy Alliance, told me.
What is kratom?
The kratom tree, a relative of the coffee plant, is native to Southeast Asia. Local populations traditionally chewed leaves from the tree to combat fatigue, much like how indigenous Americans in the mountains of South America use coca leaves. Taking large doses, either in powder or tea form, have a narcotic effect "that resemble drugs such as opiates," according to a 2015 study published by the journal BioMed Research International.
There's another side to the plant, though. Multiple studies suggest that people in western countries are increasingly using kratom to wean themselves off of opioid addiction, with many self-reported and anecdotal success stories. However, more research needs to be conducted. One case study from 2008 noted that a 43-year-old man was successfully taking small doses of kratom to combat his addiction, until it apparently reacted with another medication he was taking, causing him to have a seizure.
But labeling kratom—even temporarily—as a substance with no medical benefits puts research of the plant at risk, according to drug policy advocates like Davies, who fear the designation will freeze research instead of expanding it. Given that the DEA refuses to acknowledge marijuana’s medical benefits despite evidence to the contrary, this concern is even more acute. The feeling goes that if cannabis—a plant with that’s been legalized for medical reasons in 25 state and D.C.—cannot pass muster, this newer, less understood plant doesn't stand a chance. Amid a historic opiate epidemic, a potential solution to this crisis is in the process of being shut out.
In a video published on Sept. 2 by pro-kratom YouTube channel Soldiers for Change, a veteran describes how he stopped taking addictive prescription medication for his migraine headaches after he started brewing kratom tea at home.
“You’re taking away a right that I fought for," the veteran says in the video. "When I did my tour in Iraq, I fought for my right to be in America and be able to help myself, to cure myself. I’m not talking about snorting cocaine, shooting up heroin—I’m not even talking about puffing a joint. I’m talking about brewing some tea leaves, having a sip, and feeling better.”
The veteran blames the DEA's decision to categorize kratom as a Schedule I substance on pressure from pharmaceutical companies, which he claims find it more profitable to peddle prescription drugs than natural substances. Advocates suggest a similar motive behind the DEA's actions.
"There's no incentive for a pharmaceutical company to spend years and millions of dollars in clinical research to get FDA approval when you can't make money off of it," said Davies. "It really points to the need for a new drug classification system, like an FDA for recreational drugs or drugs that have some therapeutic benefits."
Why is the DEA worried about kratom?
Despite its possible medical benefits, kratom has been linked to dangers, but in a roundabout way. The DEA reported that it "is aware of 15 kratom-related deaths between 2014 and 2016” around the world, but mostly in Europe. However, case details show that the agency was unable to isolate kratom as the sole cause behind any of those deaths since other drugs, such as fentanyl and methadone, were also found in the victims’ systems. In addition, U.S. poison centers have received 660 calls related to kratom since 2010, according to the DEA; there was one death among them, but the victim was also using two other drugs at the time.
Between 2014 and mid-2016, about 12 million doses of kratom were seized at U.S. ports of entry after the Department of Food and Drug Administration issued an “Import Alert,” allowing for the plant’s seizure. The FDA argued that kratom can produce symptoms like respiratory depression, tremors, sleeplessness, hallucinations, nausea, and more. According to the FDA, it presents "a new dietary ingredient for which there is inadequate information to provide reasonable assurance that such ingredient does not present a significant or unreasonable risk of illness or injury.”
Regulations on kratom vary from state to state and even county to county. In 2014, the Pentagon banned members of the Armed Forces from using the plant.
When assessed together, the aforementioned was enough for the DEA to label kratom as an "imminent public health and safety threat."
There is some precedent for a substance being placed on the Schedule I list, and then later getting removed, but it’s rare, according to Davies. In one case, the party drug TFMPP was temporarily placed on the Schedule I list, then later taken off.
In a phone call, DEA spokesperson Russ Baer told me that the agency has received considerable feedback from both people pushing to keep kratom unscheduled, as well as those who’ve had negative experiences with the plant and are happy it’s going to be regulated.
"The DEA, we're public servants," Baer said. "We work for the public, but we are restricted and we are obligated to follow science and the FDA's drug approval process in determining what constitutes safe and effective medical products. The law does not allow us to rely upon public opinion and anecdotal evidence."
"At this point, there's inadequate scientific research to indicate whether or not kratom has a current accepted medical use," he said, adding that research is beyond the DEA’s purview. “But we encourage and support research for it.”
How are advocates addressing this?
For their part, drug policy advocates have obtained the more than 100,000 signatures needed to petition the White House to remove kratom as a Schedule I substance.
"The way that the regulations were written is so misleading," Susan Ash, founder and director of the American Kratom Association, told me. "[The DEA] called kratom an opioid in a way that will activate all the lawmakers going through the opioid crisis, and turn them against it. But it's not an opioid, and in fact, people use it to get over opioid addiction."
Last week, Ash marched to the White House to submit the petition. Hundreds of “everyday people,” including nurses, parents, and veterans who regularly ingest kratom for various reasons, joined her.
The issue is urgent because if it takes the maximum 60 days for the White House to respond, the Schedule I categorization will already have gone into effect on Sept. 30, she added.
The DEA's new regulations, according to Ash, are a "perfect example of failed drug policy in the United States."
"If we lose," she said, "they're going to turn all of us into felons."
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.