The Drug Enforcement Administration plans on snuffing out the drug kratom in just a few days. On Friday it will be outlawed under the agency's powers of emergency "scheduling," which allow the DEA to ban substances for at least two years without permanent prohibition.
Users and advocates of the Southeast Asian drug have been fighting, so far unsuccessfully, to save it from full prohibition. They say it can be used as an opioid and heroin substitute, a claim that can be especially appealing in an age when overdoses, often fueled by legit gateway drugs like oxycodone, have become the leading cause of accidental deaths in the nation.
This week, 51 members of Congress sent a letter to DEA administrator Chuck Rosenberg, asking him to delay the emergency scheduling so that research into kratom's possible uses as an opioid substitute can continue.
"As our nation continues to combat the public health crisis of opioid abuse, the federal government has invested significant resources to develop alternative pain management strategies," the letter states. "This includes a study funded by the National Institutes of Health in partnership with the University of Massachusetts and the University of Mississippi to investigate the use of kratom as a remedy for opioid withdrawal. This study led the researchers to apply for a patent identifying the kratom extract, mitragynine, as a useful treatment for other addictive drugs besides opiate derivatives. The DEA’s decision to place kratom as a Schedule I substance will put a halt on federally funded research and innovation surrounding the treatment of individuals suffering from opioid and other addictions — a significant public health threat."
The Drug Policy Alliance also is fighting the prohibition. "If the DEA gets its way, more people who struggle with addiction could be criminalized, which is exactly the opposite direction drug policy should be going — especially given the scientific and political consensus that drug use and addiction are most effectively treated as health issues," the organization said in a statement.
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Last month the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles announced that 100 cases of health products containing kratom had been seized in Grover Beach. "Kratom is a drug that has very serious health effects on users,” the U.S. Attorney in L.A., Eileen Decker, said at the time.
In July the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an alert that argues kratom, a natural substance derived from tree leaves, can cause respiratory depression, nervousness, agitation, aggression, hallucinations, nausea and more. The DEA says there have been 15 kratom-related deaths since 2014.
Advocates of the drug say it's far less scary than feds contend. Dr. Joe Alton says that even if some of the FDA's claims are true, the drug is still far safer than the kinds of opioids, including heroin and oxycodone, that some of its users are trying to get away from. "It's a better alternative than heroin," he said.
"Basially what this ban is going to do is it's going to cause a number of people to revert to their opioid of choice, such as heroin," Alton said. "We can expect opiate-related deaths because of hasty acton on the part of the DEA."