In August of 2016 the DEA announced that it would temporarily classify kratom as a Schedule I substance. The public outcry against this plan influenced the DEA to reverse itself and delay scheduling kratom in October of 2016. The DEA announcement said before taking further action, it would solicit public comments and review the FDA’s “scientific and medical evaluation” of the proposed scheduling of kratom. Once the DEA has received and considered the information, it would decide how to proceed. But while we await the DEA’s decision, kratom is being sold in vending machines.
Advocates for kratom were overjoyed with the DEA’s decision. Chris Ingraham reported for The Washington Post that researchers welcomed the decision to delay scheduling kratom, but were concerned that the future of their research was still up in the air. After its October 2016 announcement, the DEA set a period for public comments on the potential scheduling of kratom until December 1st of 2016. As of August 6th, 2017, there has not been a public announcement about its decision or its review of the FDA report on kratom.
Since the DEA delayed a decision on kratom, it is still unregulated and will remain available for anyone to use without a prescription. And research into the risks and benefits of kratom can continue unhindered by a temporary Schedule I classification.
Andrew Kruegel of Columbia University is working to develop new painkillers from compounds contained in kratom. He commented: “I am encouraged that they will now be having more serious input on this important policy decision.” While the DEA announcement might be good news for now, studies with the methodology of rigorous, controlled trials typical of FDA evaluations don’t exist for kratom. So will the DEA wait for the months or years it could take to complete rigorous kratom studies before deciding whether or not to schedule it?
According to the American Kratom Association (here) and PinneyAssociates (here), Jack Henningfield did an “8-factor analysis” with kratom, which is the legal framework used by the FDA to assess the abuse potential of substances. Henningfield concluded that kratom had a low toxicity level; and that scheduling it as a controlled substance was not warranted.
It’s important to understand that although kratom has some mild effects similar to opioids, its chemical make-up is different, and it appears overall much safer, with apparently relatively small effects on respiration. In fact, kratom’s analgesic effects and impact on energy, combined with its favorable safety profile supports continued access by consumers to appropriately regulated kratom products while research on its uses continues.
STAT News identified another person doing research with kratom, Edward Boyer, who is currently at UMass Memorial Medical Center and Boston Children’s Hospital. Boyer has been interested in kratom since 2006. Even then there was a Catch-22 of sorts when trying to get government funding for kratom. “The National Institute on Drug Abuse didn’t want to fund kratom projects, saying it was a complementary and alternative medicine, while the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine didn’t want to fund them because it was a drug of abuse.”
In 2008, Boyer and two colleagues filed a patent to use kratom or its chemical compounds as a new treatment method for opioid withdrawal, one of the ways it is currently used informally and non-medically. Two large freezer bags of kratom he obtained still sit in a cabinet of the UMass Memorial Medical Center’s toxicology office. Boyer said the bureaucratic nightmare of running the FDA gauntlet to do a clinical trial stopped them cold.
Andrew Kruegel’s research has had some promising initial results. His team was able to demonstrate that the main components of kratom primarily stimulated the painkilling response, while having minimal effects on the proteins that caused other side effects. But these findings need to be repeated in mice and then humans, “before they could claim that they have used kratom to create an opioid-like painkiller without as many risky side effects.” But there is a problem obtaining kratom of the quality needed for his research and the red tape involved in the process of obtaining it. “There is nowhere to buy the plant unless I am going to go to Indonesia and contact plantation owners.”
In the mean time, you can order kratom on the Internet from several vendors. And if you live near the East Coast Super Subs shop in Tucson Arizona, you can buy it out of a vending machine. Eric Boodman reported for STAT News that the vending machine there attracted five customers in an hour. The servers at the sub shop said it gets even busier around opening and closing time. Using cash or a credit card, a customer can buy as little as 10 grams for $5, or up to 120 grams for $50.
The almost-scheduling of kratom seems to have been good advertising for the herbal product. Drew Pickett, the owner of a second kratom vending machine company, Arizona Kratom, said many people discovered kratom because of the bad publicity. “People were like, ‘Wow, if the government doesn’t want me to have it, I want to try it.’” He estimated the aborted ban triggered a 400% boost in his sales.
One person said kratom helped him stop using heroin six years ago. Last year he relapsed, and was back using heroin for several months before he used kratom to wean himself off heroin for the second time. He found the Tucson Kratom vending machine when the kratom he used to get from head shops became too pricey. Now he wants to wean off of kratom as well. “I start with a lot of it initially … and then I taper down. I’ve been doing it very gradually and probably in the next two or three months, I’ll be done with it.”
But things aren’t all sunshine and happiness with the kratom vending machine. Dr. Mazda Shirazi, the medical director of the Arizona Poison and Drug information Center first heard about the machine when a patient of his began to show signs of liver toxicity from using kratom from the machine on a daily basis. He’s worried about the lack of regulation with kratom, meaning you can’t be sure of the purity of what you are buying. He’s also concerned that using kratom to wean off of opioids will give some addicts false hope. “I think it actually prolongs the addiction cycle and puts the patient in a dangerous situation, whereas by getting help they might be better off.”
Susan Ash, the founder of the American Kratom Association, saw the vending machine as a sign of how pervasive the opioid epidemic has become. “Maybe a person who is going to walk into that sandwich store and has never heard of kratom — maybe that will be their first day off of opiates.” She liked the idea of people not having to wait a day or longer for their kratom to arrive in the mail. But she worried the vending machine made kratom available to children under 18. “There’s not enough research to know how the substance affects developing brains.”
And there’s the rub: there simply isn’t enough reliable, replicated research with kratom to make an informed decision on how to use it or whether to schedule kratom. Henningfield’s study is suggestive of a good safety profile for kratom, but can’t be regarded as conclusive since it was funded by the American Kratom Association. In contrast to Henningfield’s safety assessment of kratom, others have said there is a real probability of becoming addicted with kratom.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) noted how two compounds in kratom, mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine, interact with opioid receptors in the brain, and produce the same effects of sedation, pleasure and decreased pain as opioids. There are symptoms of withdrawal when an individual stops using kratom and some users have reported becoming addicted to kratom. Adverse health effects from kratom use include: sensitivity to sunburn, nausea, sweating, loss of appetite, and sometimes psychotic symptoms. Chronic use of kratom has been linked with liver problems, as noted above. Kratom by itself hasn’t been linked with deaths, but if mixed with other substances, it has been part of a fatal drug cocktail. See “Krypton Can Kill You” and “The Secret of Kratom” for more on this.
While it isn’t a federally controlled substance at this time, six U.S. states and three cities have listed kratom as a Schedule I substance. Globally, several countries have either regulated or banned kratom. In Europe, kratom is a controlled substance in Denmark, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Sweden and the UK. It is a controlled narcotic in Australia and New Zealand. Possession of kratom is illegal in Thailand and its use is prohibited in Malaysia. Canada has made it illegal to market it for human consumption.
What is clear is the need for reliable, replicated research with kratom. Edward Boyer said: “Is it an effective treatment for opioid withdrawal, or is it another pathway to addiction? I don’t think anybody has a defined concept of where it actually lies on that continuum.” Nevertheless, it seems there is growing anecdotal evidence of some level of dependence or addiction with kratom. If the DEA delays its decision to regulate kratom much longer, it might become part of the problem instead of a solution to the opioid epidemic.