Yesterday, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) renewed its efforts to ban the sale and use of the herbal supplement kratom. Yet, as the agency continues to label the Asian plant dangerous and addictive, one outside expert believes the FDA's demonization of the plant is being blown out of proportion.
In a Tuesday statement from the FDA warning the public about kratom, Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said the plant contains hazardous chemical substances that mimic the effects of opioids. The government agency is also convinced kratom has no medical value.
"Kratom should not be used to treat medical conditions, nor should it be used as an alternative to prescription opioids. There is no evidence to indicate that kratom is safe or effective for any medical use," wrote Dr. Gottlieb, as reported by NBC News. "As the scientific data and adverse event reports have clearly revealed, compounds in kratom make it so it isn't just a plant — it's an opioid."
The FDA commissioner also claimed kratom is directly responsible for at least 44 deaths. Statistics provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed a substantial increase in calls to nationwide poison control centers from 2010 to 2015.
In November, the FDA issued a previous warning about kratom use. Also last year, the Drug Enforcement Administration wanted to put kratom on the list of Schedule I drugs, essentially making it just as illegal as heroin and ecstasy. After thousands of public comments and testimonials about the benefits of kratom, the agency dropped the idea and decided to list it as a "drug of concern."
While the government seems hard-pressed to ultimately ban kratom, supporters of the herb are fighting to keep it on the market. Referring to an allegedly flawed computer model that predicts how kratom acts like opioids in the body, the American Kratom Association accuses the FDA of blindly calling the plant dangerous without any real scientific analysis.
"This is an unprecedented abuse of science to create a new computer program that is clearly garbage in garbage out avoiding the rules of the Controlled Substances Act and making unproven claims that have been proven to be untrue."
Another potential advocate for kratom is the head of the Department of Basic Pharmaceutical Sciences at High Point University, Scott Hemby. He has spent quite a bit of time studying kratom, specifically its two main alkaloids, mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine.
According to Hemby's research, the alkaloids in kratom do bind to opioid receptors in the body and can provide pain relief in much the same way an opioid drug does. However, the plant's effects are not nearly as potent as most prescription painkillers legally on the market. In addition, the chemicals bind to the receptors in a much different way than opioids like heroin and oxycodone.
His research did suggest some addictive qualities of kratom, but not so much to prompt the FDA to issue such a dire warning. It is quite the opposite, Hemby notes, saying the plant has a low potential for abuse.
Hemby is also wondering about the 44 kratom-related deaths cited by the FDA. Per a CNN report, the idea that the deaths were a result of kratom did not come from toxicology or autopsy reports, but from personal reports that the person ingested kratom prior to dying. These same reports also indicated other drugs were involved.
For now, the FDA is content to rely on computer predictions to push a possible kratom ban agenda. Unless the agency receives and reviews valid scientific evidence that the plant provides some medicinal purpose, it will likely continue to issue warnings about a supplement millions of people around the world safely use every day.