Kratom Madness: How a Thai Tree Restarted Plant Prohibition


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Despite what your local news team or head shop is claiming, kratom is not the next hot party drug. Kratom is not going to make you want to dance all night, to make out with someone while listening to dubstep, or to get crazy with your friends. We’ve all seen the claims on shady websites, but either they’re mixing their kratom with something or they’re marketing their product in a very disingenuous way. And it is exactly that marketing that has brought a lot of negative attention to a plant that could very well be helping some very sick people.

Many people have never heard of kratom (Latin name mitragyna speciosa). It’s a jungle tree native to Southeast Asia (Thailand, Malaysia, etc). Its leaves have been traditionally used by people in that region as a herbal chew or tea for energy. More recently, as kratom has been legally banned in some places, such as Thailand, it’s become popular in illegal street cocktails known as 4×100 (not to be confused with the knockoff 8×100). 4X100 is a random mix of kratom tea, codeine cough syrup, sometimes alcohol, sometimes meth, sometimes DEET, and sometimes any other number of things you really don’t want to be drinking. A pair of Canadian sisters learned this the hard way a few years back, when the DEET levels in their 4×100 ended up being lethal.

For most North Americans, the DEET deaths or the “kratom madness” news reports warning of a new drug their teens might be taking was the first they’d ever heard of kratom. And if they believe what the mainstream media has to say about this natural remedy, it’s no wonder several states have considered or passed laws banning kratom or kratom extracts.

However, kratom is not dangerous like the synthetic drugs it has often been marketed or sold next to. Kratom on its own, much like cannabis, has never been ruled the sole cause of a single death. Even with highly potent and refined extracts, the amount a person would have to take for a fatal reaction is so incredibly high that it’s unrealistic to imagine it happening.

What about this plant, then, could have people so up in arms about it? Kratom’s active ingredients bind to the same receptors in the brain that opiates do. This has a number of significant implications, the most obvious of which is that kratom is actually useful for people kicking an opiate or heroin addiction. Most of the active compounds in kratom are alkaloids, such as 7-hydroxymitragynine, mitragynine, and mitraphylline, although not all the compounds in the plant have been conclusively identified at this point.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the promise kratom shows for combating opiate addiction, very little academic or medical research has been done on the plant and its active compounds. A professor at the University of Alabama, whose research focuses on helping break chemical addictions has been studying kratom for some time, and he is a firm believer that the plant represents a better option, with proper controls and studies, than methadone does for addicts. Along with another opiate addiction specialist on the East Coast, his team is working to isolate the active compounds in kratom and possibly develop a synthetic version to aid in withdrawal in a clinical setting.

One North American case study following a single addict in 2008 also concluded that kratom could quite possibly be useful in clinical settings for aiding in opiate withdrawal/cessation, but that more study on the topic was required. It also established that kratom, unlike cannabis, may have serious interactions with certain medications (such as modafinil, whose co-administration resulted in a seizure in the patient). For that reason, it is important that anyone considering kratom as an herbal treatment option first researches the plant and any medications they are currently taking to ensure there is no risk there.

The traditional use of kratom in Southeast Asia was generally considered low-risk and was typically limited to chewing raw leaves, meaning the doses of the active compounds would be lower. There is still very little social stigma attached to this form of kratom use (though more associated with the kratom cocktails sold on the black market), and in some rural areas in Thailand estimates indicate more than 2/3 of the adult male population may chew kratom on a daily basis. Unlike Western users, who generally take higher doses for pain-relief or sedative effects, Asian kratom eaters are looking for a pick-me-up, not dissimilar to what we find in a large latte.

The kratom tree is actually from the same family of plants as the coffee plant, which may explain the mild stimulating effect that low doses of the leaves have on people. Despite its prohibition in Thailand, the kratom tree still grows wild in the countryside, allowing kratom eaters relatively easy ongoing access. People chewing the leaves experience similar effects to those caused by caffeine: increased energy and improved mood.

Some Western users also use kratom in regular low doses to combat depression, anxiety, or insomnia with plenty of anecdotal reports of success online on various forums. Others are buying kratom as a supplement and using it in higher doses to reduce or eliminate their dependence on prescription opioid medications for chronic pain. Some people are even using kratom in conjuction with cannabis to free themselves of expensive, addictive pain prescriptions entirely.

It needs to be noted that because kratom binds to the same receptors in the brain as do opiates, it presents a risk of addiction. There is very little research done on kratom addiction and withdrawal, but anecdotal stories seem to indicate that heavy, long-term users of kratom will experience withdrawal unless they slowly decrease their dosage when discontinuing kratom use. That withdrawal may be similar in symptom to opiate withdrawal, though it is generally reported as relatively less intense and somewhat longer lasting than standard opiate withdrawal.

Only long-term studies of this promising plant can truly determine what its best and safest uses are, but the little evidence that exists does not support a criminal prohibition of this natural wonder. Several groups have organized online to defend the legal status of kratom in the United States, although larger sites (such as the Kratom Association, once a haven for Western kratom advocates) have been shut down by hosting companies in the past. One can only hope that reason and compassion win out over corporate interests and scare-mongering. The last thing our country needs is another round of unsustainable plant prohibition to protect the financial interests of companies that manufacture opioid painkillers.