DEA Moves to Ban Exotic New Drug

The DEA in action
The DEA in action

There's an exotic new drug in California, but before you can even begin to get your grubby hands on it, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is making an emergency move to outlaw it.

The drug, known as kratom, is sometimes used as an opioid substitute and is harvested from tree leaves found in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. In the United States, where it has not yet been approved for specific uses, it's sometimes packaged illegally as a dietary supplement, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

"Kratom is abused for its ability to produce opioid-like effects and is often marketed as a legal alternative to controlled substances," according to a DEA statement yesterday.

The agency has invoked its powers of "emergency scheduling" to start a 30-day clock toward temporarily prohibiting the drug, or rather its active ingredients, as a Schedule I substance. Those are drugs, such as marijuana, heroin, and ecstasy that have "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse," according to the agency.

DEA spokesman Russ Baer said that once the emergency scheduling takes effect it will last for two years and that the administration could extend the ban for another year. It covers the active kratom ingredients mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine, according to the DEA. The emergency scheduling will take effect Sept. 30, Baer said.

Before yesterday, the DEA admitted that kratom wasn't exactly illegal (though other federal agencies have begged to differ).

"Kratom is not a controlled substance in the United States," the agency stated in a 2006 fact sheet. "However, it is controlled in Thailand, Malaysia, and Myanmar (Burma)."

Last month the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles announced it had seized more than 100 cases of health products containing the unapproved drug. Authorities said the haul is worth $150,000. The target of the seizure was Kratom Therapy in Grover Beach, which apparently sold the substance online as a health product.

The U.S. Attorney's office said in a statement that "the seized Kratom products are unapproved new drugs and misbranded drugs under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act." Still, the DEA prohibition will give feds more power to bust the alleged peddlers of this substance. It will also mean that there's no defense for possessing it.

Baer said there have been 15 kratom-related deaths between 2014 and 2016 and that U.S. poison control centers have field 660 reports about the drug between 2010 and 2015.

"We've seized kratom in various forms, powders, liquids, plants and patches," he said. "The emergency scheduling is related to the imminent hazard to public safety."

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