Man, do I hate being right. As of last week, according to the DEA, kratom will be categorized as a Schedule 1 drug.
Most people don’t even know what kratom is, so I didn’t expect much of a reaction to my original prediction. Even the clerks at local apothecaries doubted me. One herbalist said to me, “Nah man, they’ve been saying that for years. It’ll never happen.”
The DEA’s move effectively renders kratom as dangerous to distribute or purchase as cocaine and heroin. The announcement has been met with loud and fierce acrimony. A whitehouse.gov petition has over 100k signatures and is likely to reach 200k.
The petition clearly states what is at stake:
“Schedule I drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.
“This is not true for Kratom, it has been shown numerous times in reports from users to help recovering Opiate addicts, treat pain, combat depression and anxiety, and much more. Deaths that involve Kratom being a persons’ system have always been from the result of mixing Kratom with other drugs, rather than Kratom alone. In states that banned Kratom, Alabama specifically, opiate usage and deaths went up after Kratom was banned in the state. Please stop the DEA from scheduling Kratom as Schedule I, there are many people who will suffer from this.”
I’ll go ahead and disclose that I have a horse in this race. I take kratom daily for anxiety. I discovered it while attempting to curb a painkiller hankering. Years earlier, a chiropractor who was treating me for a pinched nerve gave me a prescription to Vicodin and….well, you know how the story goes.
I discovered kratom on the internet during a late-night information binge. I wrote it in a notebook filled with disjointed thoughts and phrases — my organizer — and the next day, I purchased some at Happy High Herbs in Ocean Beach, California. I learned there were three kinds – red, green, and white. I tried the red first and was stunned. There it was, that feeling of wellness. Not euphoria, just — a feeling that it was going to be okay, that people didn’t hate me, that my life hadn’t already ended in failure, that I might not end up in a straight jacket orating Finnegan’s Wake backward from memory.
It was the same feeling Vicodin gave me. Here’s the difference: one can kill you and one can’t.
The primary active alkaloid in kratom, mitragynine, is an opioid agonist that binds to the feel-good receptors in the brain, just as heroin and other opiates do. However, unlike opiates, which bind to mu receptors, mitragynine binds to delta opioid receptors. This one distinction makes kratom incapable of, say, shutting down your respiratory system; a simple neurochemical receptor preference makes one drug safe and the other potentially deadly.
Kratom performs a little magic trick. It deludes the brain into thinking it’s getting opiates without actually delivering them. It simulates the high. Of course, like anything that makes you feel good, kratom can be addictive. Just like any number of legal sundries that propel people through their busy days, it can be habit-forming. Like coffee. In fact, kratom is quite literally like coffee; it’s derived from a tree (Rubiaceae) in the coffee family.
Again, kratom does have habit-forming potential. It can cause addiction and, therefore, withdrawal. But this can be said of coffee, energy drinks, cigarettes, alcohol, etc. Any substance that tinkers with neurochemistry has the potential for abuse.
Supporters of the kratom ban maintain, simply, that it is a threat to the public. But this is a hollow, specious argument. There are apocryphal, unsubstantiated online reports of a few deaths that may have been related to kratom use. A Longview mom was found dead after smoking kratom, but the coroner has not concluded kratom was the cause of death. There is a report claiming nine people died from kratom use in Sweden. The blend that killed them, however, contained O-desmethyl-Tramadol, which is an extremely powerful opioid analgesic, meaning kratom alone was not the cause.
Other articles online claim 15 people died from kratom overdoses between 2014 and 2016. Without going into each case, it should be noted that all of them involve people who had consumed multiple substances and likely died from the other substances. This can be deduced by the following fact: there is not one documented case of a person overdosing and dying purely from kratom. Not one. Like marijuana — another Schedule 1 drug — kratom is medicinal, with countless therapeutic uses.
The same cannot be said for prescription painkillers. In the United States, between the years of 1999 and 2014, 165,000 people died from prescription opioid overdose. Currently, 46 people die every day — more than one every hour.
In 2012, healthcare providers wrote 207 million prescriptions for opioid painkillers, up from 76 million in 1991. Either the experience of pain has tripled in the last decade and a half, or pharmaceutical companies have conscripted the nation’s entire health care apparatus into a legal pills-for-profit scheme. My bet is on the latter. Numbers don’t lie, especially when there are dollar signs involved.
Purdue alone has profited $31 billion from OxyContin. That’s one drug from one company.
It is blatantly transparent to even mainstream media outlets that the kratom ban is a lever by which the government can protect the corporate profits of Big Pharma, who stand to lose billions to a healthier competitor. It is crony capitalism at its worst. Thousands of people have died because of painkiller overdoses and the same people responsible for that are now banning a solution to the problem.
Is it really that simple? Or is it actually more sinister? Do pharmaceutical companies want to get rid of the competition, or do they want to use legal channels to reroute the flow of money? Era of Wisdom points out recent patents that suggest Big Pharma wants to monetize kratom:
“Three synthetic opioids, in particular, were synthesized from the alkaloids in kratom from 2008- 2016: MGM-9, MGM-15, and MGM-16.
“They were synthesized from kratom’s alkaloids Mitragynine and 7-Hydroxymitragynine: to make what is essentially patentable, pharmaceutical kratom.”
Behind the scenes, Big Pharma has been developing patents for a substance the government just made illegal. When they have developed their synthetic concoctions — when they’re the ones selling it — kratom will be reborn into a new market. My guess is that this new market will open at the advent of a massive, federally subsidized Big Pharma PR campaign to deal with the addiction epidemic it created, weening its addicts off real opium with their new synthetic kratom. But you can’t get it from an herbalist — get in line at the pharmacy.
Incidentally, this same exact scenario already occurred in Thailand, where the government banned kratom in order to run its own opium industry.
The meteoric rise of the kratom industry (fueled by people desperate to stop taking painkillers) will now see an equally drastic decline. Countless small businesses will shutter their doors. I spoke with Sara Kilbride, who works at Happy High Herbs, where I bought my first kratom. She said she personally knows many people who are very upset — people who have relied on kratom for pain relief, anxiety relief, and even symptoms of ADD. Some of her friends have already switched back to opiates. One friend, who for years drank alcohol to reduce back pain, had relied on kratom to avoid taking painkillers. She wondered what he will do now, further noting the all-natural compound has saved the lives of countless veterans.
She’s not being hyperbolic. With kratom gone, thousands of people will look for other ways to relieve their pain. Many will return to pills, and when the pills run out, they will turn to heroin… you know the story.