What Is Kratom? How the Herbal Drug May Help Fight the Opioid Crisis

But a federal ban could stunt research.

While Kratom is heavily discussed in niche communities on YouTube and Reddit, the herbal drug is still relatively unknown to the rest of the world. And if the FDA has its way, that unfamiliarity will soon be legally enforced.

Kratom (Mitragyna speciosa) is a plant that’s been used for hundreds of years in parts of Asia as a mild stimulant, generally consumed as a tea produced from its powdered form. Since crossing over into the US, many people have claimed it has helped them deal with opioid addiction, anxiety, and severe pain. Some have even gone so far as to say it saved their life.

It’s generally available in smoke shops and online, marketed as an herbal supplement, and much like many of the products these establishments carry, it’s relatively unresearched and unregulated, which is one of the first lines of attack for its detractors.

Two alkaloids, mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine, are the main active components of kratom, and they bind themselves to the body’s opioid receptors — although they do so in a different manner than other substances, like heroin, morphine, and fentanyl, earning it the classification of an “atypical opioid.” Like regular opioids, the plant can produce euphoric effects at high doses and result in withdrawal effects if used frequently.

More research into the effects that make it “atypical” is needed to help substantiate claims to its unique properties. Among the many scientists who see the value in pursuing this research before committing to any further course of action is C. Michael White, the department head and professor of pharmacy practice at the University of Connecticut.

“One of the big problems with kratom is that we have animal studies that’ll tell you some of the potential mechanisms by which kratom does what it does, and they’re very interesting, and they’re different than many of the other pain relievers that we currently have as prescription therapies. So, to that extent, it’s very promising,” White previously told Inverse.

“But the problem is that when you actually are looking for human data in clinical trials to really be able to understand it, there’s not a lot of data, and the data that we have is mostly anecdotal information.”

Kratom capsules

Wikimedia / Psychonaught

Kratom’s still technically legal in the US, but the FDA banned imports in 2014. And because it’s not approved for any specific medical use, anyone turning to it for relief from their ailments is operating on their own accord. This lack of oversight also calls the substance’s safety standards into question, as a big recall occurred just earlier this year due to salmonella contamination.

Greater regulation would, of course, help prevent such things from happening, but advocates for kratom argue that the FDA isn’t interested in providing better support for the substance because it serves as an alternative to the opioids that doctors prescribe for pain relief, something the pharmaceutical industry is invested in preventing. Many advocates also claim kratom helped them overcome addictions that began with opioid prescriptions.

Without further research, there’s no definitive response to any of these assertions, and if the DEA makes Kratom a Schedule 1 drug — the highest degree for illegal substances in the US that classifies marijuana, cocaine, and many other illicit drugs — the opportunity for additional insight will be lost.

Check out our other coverage on kratom for more on this developing story.

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