Though Mitragyna speciosa Kratom has been used for a long time in South-East Asia, it does not enjoy a rich, often romanticized history similar to that of other drugs such as opium or cannabis.
Kratom culture and use was, until recently restricted to South-Eastern Asia, where it was used locally, in rural areas, for both its medicinal and psychoactive qualities and as a stimulant for work and a recreational relaxant.
Opium or cannabis use were much more prevalent throughout the history of Asia, associated with widespread recreational and medical use and cultivation, while Kratom use was a more localised phenomenon, primarily used as a crutch and for comfort of the working peasants. Yet in Mitragyna speciosa Kratom growing areas, some opiate addicts also frequently turned to the less common Kratom as a substitute when opium could not be obtained.
Mitragyna speciosa Kratom remains a drug associated with the rural and more recently sub-urban working class of South-East Asia, a drug used by older labourers to help with the day’s hard physical work.
In such a rural peasant, working class social context, Mitragyna speciosa Kratom users were considered more desirable workers than cannabis or opium users, since Kratom users tended to be better, more enduring workers, and also more desirable as potential husbands since hard work would ensure more financial stability.
Mitragyna speciosa Kratom was described in western literature in the early 19th century, supposedly by Pieter Willem Korthals, who worked as the official botanist for the colonial Dutch East India from 1831 to 1836.
Another source states a mention of Kratom by Low in 1836, describing Kratom as a plant that people in Malaysia would use it as a substitute when opium was unavailable or unaffordable.
In 1895, E. M. Holmes identified Kratom as Mitragyna speciosa, also referring to its local use as an opium substitute.
In 1897 H. Ridley reported that the leaves of Mitragyna speciosa were used by opium addicts and could be a cure for opium addiction, which was a growing problem, with the increase of colonial opium imports and the pharmacological enthusiasm fuelled by the recent discovery of extracted opiates.
In 1907, L. Wray described local methods of using Kratom such as chewing Kratom leaves, brewing Kratom tea and smoking Kratom leaves. Wray sent sample of Mitragyna speciosa Kratom leaves as well as its relative Mitragyna parvifolia to the University of Edinburgh, in hope that the active chemical could be discovered and analyzed for medical use Hooper actually isolated an alkaloid from the leaves of Mitragyna speciosa, a procedure repeated in 1921 by Field from the leaves sent by Fray. Field then gave the alkaloid the name mitragynine. Field also discovered and named mitraversine, from the leaves of Mitragyna parvifolia.
In addition to studies on the use of Mitragyna speciosa Kratom as a psychoactive, I. H. Burkill, in 1930, also mentioned the use of Kratom in traditional medicine, describing its use as an ointment and poultice for wounds and as a cure for fevers and diarrhea.
An extensive amount of work was then carried out on other species of Mitragyna from Africa and South East Asia particularly by Raymond-Hamet.
By 1940 three other Kratom alkaloids in addition to mitragynine had been identified, and many others followed.
As the colonial era came to an end, new repressive legislations began to appear in South-East Asia.
Mitragyna speciosa Kratom was first made illegal in Thailand, on August 3, 1943 after the government passed the Kratom Act 2486 , a legislation which made it illegal to possess or sell Mitragyna speciosa Kratom leaves, made the actual planting of the native Mitragyna speciosa tree illegal, even requiring existing cultivated trees to be cut down. This law was found particularly ineffective, since the Kratom tree is actually indigenous to the country.
Today, Mitragyna speciosa Kratom is classed in the same enforcement group as cocaine and heroin under Thai law, and has the same applicable penalties.
Thailand has the death penalty for high level drug trafficking offenses, a fact which has given birth to a mythical vision of Kratom possession as “punishable by death”. In practice, however, thing are little more subtle: Kratom distributors are jailed for up to two years and fined up to 20,000 baht, and Kratom consumers can be jailed up to a month or fined up to 1000 baht. Despite these particularly harsh sentences, Kratom use is still common, especially in rural and working class society.
As with similar prohibition laws elsewhere around the world, this has succeeded only at increasing black market prices and less quality control for users.
In 2001, a report of the Thai Narcotics Control Board indicated that Kratom was still the second most widely abused illegal drug in the country, after cannabis- thought methamphetamine/yaba use is probably underestimated.
In 2001, Thai authorities seized 1270 kilograms of Kratom, and it was estimated that two million people had used Kratom in Thailand.
A related species, Mitragyna javanica, is often used as a substitute to get around the Mitragyna speciosa Kratom law, to adulterate real Kratom or even deliberately sold as Mitragyna speciosa Kratom (which might be related to the “fake Kratom” case) but it is not considered as effective. The dominant alkaloid in this species is mitrajavine, which has not yet been pharmacologically tested.
To this day, Kratom ranks second in Thailand’s illegally used drugs, surpassed by cannabis, especially in the south of Thailand (area which also traditionally has a larger non-alcohol consuming Muslim population).
The 60 year old prohibition of Kratom in Thailand is a good example of how greater geopolitical forces also undermine the straightforward dynamics of the repressive “war on drug” stance.
In a complex and capricious political context which has recently lead to more and more military power, and hushed military intervention up to the very top of the country’s political scene, tensions abound.
Thailand is an expanding newly-developed country with an outstanding tourism based economy, and also one of fragile social and political balance. The role of the army is quite crucial, a crucial player in the complex dynamics at play, with separatist groups, religious, ethnic and social tensions, a background to Thai drug-prohibition and often massive army lead anti-drug campaigns.
All the while trying to maintain its status as a peaceful tourist holiday haven, and a presentable socio-political figure.
With the proximity of the Golden Triangle’s opiate production and trade, and the recent methamphetamine explosion (which has also reached rural areas) Thailand’s harsh and repressive stance in the “war on drugs” has long been characterised by intense military actions against drug production sites, vendors and users.
Whether or not these actions were truly justified by the country’s prohibitionist and repressive strategy, they were also an excellent excuse to send military / paramilitary forces on “drug eradication” missions- which might, in some cases, involve physical violence, deportation to army detoxification camps or even death of “suspected dealers” (2,274 suspected dealers are said to have been killed in self-defence in a 2003 crackdown on methamphetamine / yaba for instance). The U.N. and human rights activists suspect that hundreds of the reported “self-defence deaths” may have been extrajudicial police / army executions.
A presentable excuse to send an intimidating / repressive military force to politically troubled, potentially separatist areas, without having to officially be accountable for doing so, since this repressive move was really officially motivated by the “war on drugs”. Mitragyna speciosa Kratom use, for instance, is widespread in the South of Thailand, which has a predominantly Muslim population and has lead a separatist insurgency, mostly in the Malay Pattani region.
Yet in recent times, rumours have begun circulating, stating that Thailand may soon abolish this largely unsuccessful and unpopular prohibition of Kratom and the Mitragyna speciosa Kratom tree, though the country’s political situation make this evolution rather uncertain.
The most encouraging signs are actually coming from medical instances, and are seemingly motivated by the problems induced by Thai opiate and especially methamphetamine use, which is increasing despite the harsh prohibitionist stance and repressive actions already mentioned.
More recently, Pennapa Sapcharoen, director of the National Institute of Thai Traditional Medicine in Bangkok, announced that Mitragyna speciosa Kratom products could potentially be medically prescribed both to opiate addicts and to patients suffering from depression, while also stressing that further preliminary research would be necessary.
A recognition of Mitragyna speciosa Kratom’s potential as medicine and of its usefulness in treating opiate addiction is quite a change from the vision of Kratom as a dangerous addictive drug, from which users need to be detoxified, portrayed in the previous Thai reports.
Another factor is the more recent, yet ever growing use of amphetamines / methamphetamine (yaba) in South-East Asia, and Thailand in particular (with an estimated 2.75 to 3 million habitual yaba users), which is thought to have overcome use of other substances, expanding outside cities to deep rural areas, taking over and replacing traditional Mitragyna speciosa Kratom use as a stimulant, but with far different and more drastic health consequences.
A social reality which has been said to motivate the Thai government to consider a re-evaluation of Kratom’s potential benefits in order to treat / tamper the widespread use of synthetic stimulants. Kratom products, coming from the leaves of the native Mitragyna speciosa tree, does not contribute to the illegal economy as much as synthetic stimulants, since quite a few traditional users simply pick their own leaves from Mitragyna trees, or buy them in a local market- which does not involve large illegal financial transactions and the violence that comes with illegal, clandestine drug production and trade.
The majority of Thai yaba pills are actually smuggled from Laos or Myanmar/Burma for instance, whereas Kratom is inexpensive, coming from an indigenous plant with little production costs.
A Thai senator, Pinya Chuayplod, also mentioned in a Bangkok Post interview, the possible use of Kratom products to help stimulant users overcome their cravings.
Similarly, a handful of people, in Malaysia and possibly other South-East Asian countries have also begun lobbying their governments to allow medical research on Mitragyna speciosa Kratom, as a potential prescription substance, for pain and (stimulant / opiate) addiction management.
Myanmar (formerly Burma) declared Mitragyna speciosa a controlled narcotic drug under Section 30 (b) of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Law in a Ministry of Health notice dated 28 January 1993.
In Malaysia, a country which already has some of the harshest drug legislations in the world, mitragynine was made illegal in 2003, and Mitragyna speciosa Kratom leaves in August 2004.
In early March 2006, the Deputy Internal Security Minister Datuk Mohamed Johari Baharum announced that the Attorney General had been given instructions to expand the Dangerous Drugs Act to make consumption of Mitragyna speciosa Kratom a criminal offence as well, since the prior legal disposition did not cover Kratom consumption.
In January 2007, Malaysia, began moving to further criminalize Mitragyna speciosa Kratom, making it more illegal than less by planning to reclassify it under the “dangerous drugs” law rather than the previous, and less severe, “poisonous substances” laws.
Penalties in Malaysia include fines of up to 10,000 ringgit or jail sentences of up to four years or both.
In June, 2004, Malay authorities organized a four day operation which resulted in the arrest of 15 people and the seizure of over 800 liters of prepared Kratom tea and 245 kilograms of Mitragyna speciosa Kratom leaves in the states of Terengganu, Pahang and Kelantan.
Other operations were conducted in 2003 and 2004, and presumably are ongoing.
As of April 2005, Malaysia has had 99 cases involving Kratom, and 29 people have been charged, but no one has been reported jailed.
Mitragyna speciosa Kratom tree cutting is also in order in Malaysia, yet operations are stalling as opposition to such drastic anti-Kratom policies is expanding, and emphasizes that cutting of Mitragyna speciosa trees harms regional biodiversity.
Australia was another recent country to ban Mitragyna speciosa Kratom. Several meetings of the National Drugs and Poisons Schedule Committee were held between February 2003 and February 2004 to consider the addiction of mitragynine and Mitragyna speciosa into Schedule 9 of the Standard for the Uniform Scheduling of Drugs and Poisons.
In October 2003, the NDPSC 39th Meeting agreed to schedule mitragynine, and the 40th Meeting held in February 2004 agreed to add Mitragyna speciosa Kratom to Schedule 9 as well. Several public comments were received, arguing that Mitragyna speciosa Kratom was relatively safe, and harmless. These comments also pointed out Kratom’s medical and therapeutic potential.
Yet the Committee focused on the growing sale and promotion of Kratom on the internet, using this argument to highlight the potential problems of Mitragyna speciosa Kratom use. The N.D.P.S.C. then confirmed the decision to schedule Mitragyna speciosa Kratom, and an amended S.U.S.D.P. law went into effect as of January 1st 2005.
A New Zealander on the Committee also suggested that Australia should officially recommend Kratom scheduling to New Zealand, yet this has not yet had any repercussions.
Interest in Mitragyna speciosa Kratom has only recently began to expand beyond its traditional South-East Asian setting, notably due to the internet grapevine, which connects communities of users interested in researching psychoactive substances responsibly, along with the internet importers and vendors which have made the Mitragyna speciosa plant widely available for research and experimentation.
While the future of Kratom’s international legal status is uncertain, it is clear that both vendors and researchers / users have a role to play in spreading accurate information and in calling for a responsible and respectful use of Mitragyna speciosa Kratom.
Despite its clear medical potential, Mitragyna speciosa has only recently begun to be of interest to western scientific and medical research, and it is clear that much remains to be studied on this plant’s general activity, and potential pharmacological applications.