Many countries have deemed kratom unsafe for consumption as a tea and in capsule form. It’s also no longer legal to smoke it in many countries, such as:
In addition, some US states, like Arkansas, Vermont, and Alabama, have made the drug illegal.
What Is Kratom?
Kratom comes from a tree that is native in parts of Southeast Asia, including Borneo, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. Some sources estimate that 4-5 million Americans may be using kratom, per U.S. News.
The leaves of the plant are bitter and have a stimulant-like effect in low dosages and a sedative-like effect in high doses. The leaves may be brewed into a tea or another liquid. It’s also possible for a person to chew on the leaves to extract the mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine. Others create a powder out of the extract to create a paste, or the powder may be mixed with a liquid or food. Kratom is also sold as a powder enclosed in capsule form. Some people smoke the dried leaves, but it’s impractical since a large quantity of leaves are required for a “typical” dosage. It’s easily obtainable online, and oftentimes, it comes as a green powder or gum.
Kratom is primarily used as a recreational drug as well as a medication for diarrhea. People use it to curb opiate and alcohol withdrawal symptoms and to reduce cravings for the substances, although not enough research exists to back this claim, as noted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). It’s also used as a pain reliever, particularly by those who have restless leg syndrome (RLS), arthritis, or fibromyalgia. The leaves have the potential to elevate a person’s mood, relieve pain, act as an aphrodisiac, and increase sociability.
How Does It Affect the Brain?
The two active compounds in kratom leaves are mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine, and they affect opioid receptors in the brain. In particular, the active substances in the plant are partial agonists that interfere with the mu opioid receptors in the brain, which are the same ones that morphine, heroin, and fentanyl bind to. When these compounds interact with the receptors, they increase pleasure, decrease pain, and produce sedation. This especially occurs when a person uses a large amount of the plant.
When the brain only receives a small quantity of the substance, the compound mitragynine affects other receptors in the brain, which causes a stimulant effect. Individuals then feel an increase in alertness, sociability, and energy.
What Are the Dangers of Kratom?
Not everyone has a positive experience when taking the drug, and it’s attributed to an increase in emergency room visits over the years. Although data isn’t available regarding how many emergency room visits have occurred as a result of kratom, it is known that there has been a rise in people seeking medical treatment after taking kratom, particularly among teenagers who are attempting to get high.
Poison control centers throughout the nation reported two incidents of people who used kratom and had a bad reaction in 2005. In 2011, the Banner Good Samaritan Poison and Drug Information Center in Phoenix, AZ was faced with six medical emergencies as a result of kratom. According to data published by Indiana University Bloomington’s Indiana Prevention Resource Center, US poison control centers received 660 calls related to kratom exposure between 2010 and 2015.
To date, there have been no recorded deaths due to kratom. People have died when taking kratom that was laced with another substance.
Those who take kratom may experience the following symptoms:
- Loss of appetite
- Sensitivity to sunburn
- Dry mouth
- Respiratory depression
- Aggressive or combative behavior
- Psychotic episodes
- Increase in urination
An overdose has the potential to cause listlessness, aggression, constipation, nausea, delusions, tremors, and hallucinations.
Is Kratom Addictive?
People have reported becoming addicted to kratom. The drug has both physically and psychologically addictive properties. A person may have emotional changes when not taking the substance and experience aggression, hostility, and irritability.
When a person goes through withdrawal from kratom, they may suffer from insomnia. They may have muscle aches, a runny nose, and jerky movements, as noted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. People who become addicted to kratom may experience a loss of sexual desire and lose weight. The skin on their faces may darken, and they may have constant cravings for the drug.
Why Is Kratom Still Legal in Some Places?
Per Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), the drug is relatively new, so adding it to the schedule substances list could take some time. It’s an herb, which makes it hard to regulate in the US since products sold by nutraceutical companies aren’t held to the same standards as pharmaceutical companies. In fact, natural products are able to be sold even if there has been little to no research conducted on the products.
To get kratom off the market, the Food and Drug Administration would have to prove it is a dangerous substance. As of right now, not enough research has been conducted, and it hasn’t been in circulation long enough to prove its dangers. In the US, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) announced its intent to make kratom a scheduled substance on a temporary basis. Several individuals challenged the scheduling, and the DEA needs more scientific and medical evidence to support making it a scheduled substance. Even many congressmen urged the DEA to keep kratom legal since it may have the potential to keep people from returning to or beginning to use opiates. Some lawmakers say that the drug has a low potential for addiction, and there aren’t safety issues regarding the use of the drug.
According to U.S. News, almost 600 people signed a petition to address Senator A.G. Crowe of Louisiana who had proposed banning the drug in his state. The heightened concern regarding the legality of the substance caused the senator to put a halt on the ban. Senator Crowe does plan to prevent people under the age of 18 from acquiring the plant legally.
What Country Is Looking to Legalize Kratom?
Thailand has had a ban on kratom for the last 70 years due to its psychoactive properties as well as its ability to become addictive. Justice Minister Chaikasem Nitsiri urged officials in March 2016 to remove the ban on kratom. The growing number of methamphetamine addicts in Thailand prompted the country’s interest in legalizing kratom.
The US is also in the process of researching kratom for its ability to reduce symptoms of opiate and cocaine withdrawal. Researchers state kratom is less dangerous than harder drugs. A program director of Public Radio International, Pascal Tanguay, cited the lack of deaths associated with kratom as a reason why it should be legal. Moreover, the director stated there have been people chewing the plant for thousands of years without a single reported case of psychosis, overdose, violent crime, or murder.
Legalizing kratom in Thailand would mean fewer people in the criminal justice system there since those who produce, export, or import kratom can spend up to two years in prison as can those who sell it. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported more than 13,000 people were arrested in Thailand in 2011 for kratom-related crimes. It’s the third most commonly used illegal substance in Thailand, per U.S News. The New York Times revealed that kratom abuse and addiction are common in Thailand, with one study indicating 60 percent of individuals who had a substance use disorder abused kratom.
A majority of people worry that decriminalizing kratom will lead to misuse and more widespread abuse. However, in one survey, 48 percent of participants felt that kratom was a harmless, traditional medicine. While there is some controversy regarding the dangers of kratom, it’s likely that more states in the US will propose banning it.