The leafy, high-inducing shrub known as kratom is no longer just an interloper in the world of illicit drugs. Its pending status as an illegal substance has been hotly contested in recent months because of its uncanny similarities to opioids, which have some 1.9 million Americans in their addictive grip. Does this mean kratom can be just as dangerous for those drugs? Sure. But that similarity also means it might be the substitute that opioid users and other pain sufferers desperately need.

That’s the take-home message in a report published in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association today: Kratom is worth studying because it has qualities that might make it a much safer substitute for drugs currently used to treat pain and opioid withdrawal. “Kratom doesn’t produce an intense euphoria and, even at very high doses, it doesn’t depress respiration, which could make it safer for users,” Walter Prozialeck, chairman of the Department of Pharmacology at Midwestern University Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine, said in a release.

Kratom has been unfairly maligned because of its highly publicized, addiction-linked legacy in Southeast Asia. In the article, the authors argue that many plants have been shown to potentially give rise to useful medicine, noting that tamoxifen, a critical drug used for treating breast cancer, is derived from the Asteraceae family. Even the opioid drugs that so many Americans are dependent on for pain management were once derived from opium poppy seeds. Kratom, which has anecdotally been shown to treat opioid addiction, mitigate pain, deal with diarrhea, and combat depression and anxiety, has the potential to be an equally crucial drug — but perhaps a less dangerous one — if research is allowed to continue.

Prozialeck and his co-authors aren’t alone in their support the drug. Other academic scientists, like University of Florida toxicologist Oliver Grundmann, Ph.D. and pharmacologist Jay McLaughlin, Ph.D., have also advocated for more kratom research. To them, kratom represents what could be a new type of painkiller, one that’s significantly less dangerous than the drugs that are currently available. The thing is, nobody knows for sure yet; that’s what they’re trying to figure out.

What kratom represents is another perfect illustration of the toxicologist’s mantra: The dose makes the poison. As the New York Botanical Garden poisonous plant expert Michael Balick, Ph.D., previously told Inverse in a discussion on natural poisons, plants and the compounds they contain are themselves neutral; what makes them dangerous is our own irresponsibility in administering them to ourselves.

Kratom, an increasingly available drug responsible for 15 deaths in the U.S. in the past two years, is under consideration by the DEA, which announced in late August that it might categorize it as a Schedule 1 substance to “avoid an imminent hazard to public safety.” But the DEA, clearly, isn’t deaf to the arguments of researchers like Prozialeck, the handful of woke academic scientists brave enough to speak out, and the 145,906 Americans that signed a White House petition calling for a reversal of the ban: In late September, the ruling was paused, allowing crucial research on the drug to continue until further notice.

Photos via Getty Images / Joe Raedle

Yasmin is a writer and former biologist living in New York. A Toronto girl at heart, her writing also appears in The Last Magazine and SciArt in America. You might recognize her as a past host of Scientific American's YouTube series.