A Drug Enforcement Agency ban on the herbal supplement kratom will likely begin on Friday. Last month, the federal agency made a surprise announcement that the plant is to be reclassified as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act.
As soon as the ban on kratom goes into effect, purchase and possession of the plant will become illegal in the U.S., joining other drugs like heroin, ecstasy, and LSD. According to the DEA, kratom has no medical value and has a high potential for abuse. The agency also believes the plant can be addictive.
Kratom, typically available online or in some health food stores, is used by millions of Americans to treat anything from chronic pain to anxiety. Cultivated in Southeast Asia, kratom is derived from the leaves of a tree known as Mitragyna speciose and is often ground up into a powder or brewed in tea. Taken in low doses kratom acts as a stimulant, while at higher doses it can be a sedative.
Many kratom advocates believe the plant potentially helps opioid addicts kick the habit because it helps relieve many of the symptoms associated with opioid withdrawal. Susan Ash, founder of the American Kratom Association, thinks kratom could be the answer to the rampant opioid overdose epidemic plaguing the nation.
"Kratom can help ease suffering. While our nation is in the midst of the worst opiate and heroin epidemic crisis we've ever seen, this little plant holds the key to many Americans' health and well-being and is helping to reduce the staggering, terrifying rise in opiate overdose deaths."While the DEA claims kratom is an opioid, it is not part of the opium poppy family. However, the plant does contain mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine, two substances that affect the brain the same way as opioids. This is why the DEA puts kratom in the same category.
The DEA kratom ban could be reversed if enough research was provided to prove it has medical value. However, this evidence is unlikely to be delivered while the ban is in place.
Most research on the plant will be halted once the DEA's kratom ban takes effect. Many labs do not have the proper licensing in place to study Schedule I drugs and any samples of the plant will be destroyed. Additionally, the prohibition will make it difficult for labs that do have Schedule I licensing to obtain additional samples of kratom. Most vendors will likely go out of business or otherwise stop selling it.
"I think the DEA has good intentions in regard to limiting harm to the public, but I believe they are acting on incomplete information," said Dr. Andrew Kruegel, a research scientist with Columbia University. "I am not claiming that kratom is safe—we don't really know yet—it just does not appear unsafe on a massive scale that would justify immediate placement in Schedule I."
Earlier this week, a group of U.S. lawmakers sent a letter to DEA administrator Charles Rosenberg asking for a suspension of the kratom ban to allow more research and public comment.
"We urge the DEA to delay finalizing the decision to define kratom as a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act and to engage consumers, researchers, and other stakeholders, in keeping with well-established protocol for such matters. A departure from such guidelines threatens the transparency of the scheduling process and its responsiveness to the input of both citizens and the scientific community."It is unclear what impact, if any, the letter will have on the DEA kratom ban. Ash hopes the support of many U.S. lawmakers will send a message to the Obama administration that banning the substance will turn many responsible Americans into felons essentially overnight. The government's hasty prohibition on the substance has sparked a major outcry from users and advocates. A petition signed by nearly 137,000 people was sent to the White House demanding the ban be reversed. Meanwhile, the benefits of kratom are being touted on social media with hashtags #IAmKratom and #KratomSavesLives.
The DEA ban on kratom will expire in two years unless the agency decides to make the Schedule I classification permanent. Many remain surprised at the government's prohibition as most research suggests kratom is mostly harmless when compared to opioids like heroin. So far, there have been no recorded overdose deaths from kratom alone.
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