In late August, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency announced a ban on the herbal supplement kratom. Now, after much public outcry and demands made by lawmakers, the agency is reconsidering its decision.
Easily purchased online and at many health food stores, the popular herb would be just as illegal as heroin or ecstasy once the DEA's ban on kratom goes into effect. The agency plans to reclassify the plant as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act. Specifically, the DEA has a problem with two active chemicals in kratom, mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine. These two ingredients activate the same brain receptors as other drugs like oxycodone and morphine.
While the agency did not commit to a firm date, the DEA's kratom ban could have taken effect on September 30, yet the order has not been signed. According to a source familiar with the DEA's ban decision, the prohibition may not take effect until after a period of public comment and consultations with the Food and Drug Administration. Should the order be signed and kratom become illegal, it will remain prohibited for a period of up to three years, unless the agency decides to make the ban permanent.
While the DEA originally considered the herbal supplement a public health threat, the decision to delay the ban could possibly lead to a complete reversal of the agency's stance. The DEA has made no official comment as to the status of the kratom ban.
"We've consistently said to anyone that has asked that it could be September 30 or sometime thereafter," DEA spokesman Russ Baer told Medscape Medical News. "We're in that 'sometime thereafter' stage."
The decision to delay the kratom ban is likely fueled by protests by the herb's advocates and a petition sent to the Obama administration with over 130,000 signatures asking that the prohibition be lifted. Many of these supporters and users claim the supplement helps them overcome chronic pain and anxiety. Others say the plant has helped them overcome an opioid addiction.
"If the DEA gets its way, more people who struggle with addiction will be criminalized," according to a statement by Jag Davies, director of communications strategy at the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York–based nonprofit that is against the DEA's kratom ban.
In addition, a letter sent to the acting administrator of the DEA signed by 51 lawmakers requesting the agency allow for public comment and additional research before outright banning the substance probably played a part. A separate letter sent to the DEA from Senator Orrin Hatch asked why the agency considered banning kratom such a critical issue and reminded the agency not to overstep its authority when it comes to the reclassification as a Schedule I drug.
Kratom is derived from the leaves of a tree that is native to Southeast Asia and has been used there for generations to treat numerous health issues. The plant is usually crushed and made into a tea or put inside capsules to be swallowed. In low doses, kratom acts like a stimulant, while at higher doses, it has a depressant effects.
Kratom caught the attention of the DEA a few years ago when the FDA banned the importation of the substance. Also, the number of calls to poison control centers related to the supplement have increased over the past five years. Most of the calls were to report mild side effects like nausea, vomiting, and drowsiness. One death was reported, but the user also took other drugs in addition to the kratom supplement.
Currently the plant remains legal in the U.S., yet six states have banned kratom and several others have pending legislation to restrict sales of the herb. While the DEA believes kratom has no medicinal use and a high potential for abuse, recent research suggests kratom could replace other, more dangerous painkillers and possibly be a strong weapon in the fight against the nation's opioid addiction crisis.
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