Despite public outcry and two congressional letters asking for a delay to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's proposed ban on the herbal remedy kratom, the DEA remains poised to make the head-shop staple a Schedule I drug, adding it to the same category of illicit substances as heroin, LSD, and marijuana.
Asked by New Times wheter either public or congressional pressure would sway the DEA's stance concerning the plant, DEA spokesman Melvin Patterson answers, "No." Patterson adds that the ban will take effect when the DEA's acting administrator, Chuck Rosenberg, signs a formal order and it is published in the Federal Register, the federal government's daily journal.
Patterson says the soonest that could happen is today, Friday, September 30. Other news outlets are reporting that the ban will take effect at some undetermined point in the future.
Asked for clarification, a second DEA spokesperson, Barbara Carrero, says the ban could kick in any time after September 30, and that the DEA will notify the public via its Twitter account and a press release on its website. Carrero explains that in 2010, when the DEA announced its intention to schedule a group of synthetic cannaboids, the Schedule I listing did not become official until months later.
"They're not trying to be slow," she says of DEA leadership. "But they have work that they have to do on this after the notice is given."
As previously reported by New Times and other outlets, on August 31 the DEA gave a 30-day notice, as required by the U.S. Controlled Substances Act, that it intended to place mitragynine and 7-hydroxmitragynine — the two main alkaloids in the Southeast Asian plant Mitragyna speciosa, popularly known as kratom — on its Schedule I list of drugs with a high potential for abuse and no known medical use.
In its Notice of Intent, the DEA states that kratom, which is sold in pill, powder, and liquid form, poses "an imminent hazard to public safety," thus allowing the agency to label the drug Schedule I for up to two to three years before holding a hearing and soliciting public comments as required under the CSA for the permanent classification of a drug.
This move has elicited a backlash from Congress and the general public, with many claiming that kratom is a safe, natural pain reliever, known to assist addicts in weaning themselves off opioids. In response, Arizona Congressman Matt Salmon, a Republican, and Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan, a Democrat, circulated a letter among their fellow representatives asking the DEA to delay its decision on kratom. A bipartisan group of 51 U.S. House members (including Salmon and Pocan) signed the letter, which was sent to the DEA on Monday, September 26.
Only one other member of Arizona's House delegation signed the letter, Republican Paul Gosar of Arizona's Fourth Congressional District.
More recently, U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch, a Republican from Utah, has been circulating a letter asking the DEA for a delay on kratom. According to a spokesman in Hatch's office, the letter will be sent out Friday. So far, Hatch's office says, the letter has the signatures of two other senators. (Neither represents Arizona.) Calls for comment to the offices of both of Arizona's U.S. Senators — Jeff Flake and John McCain — were not returned as of press time.
Unlike the Salmon-Pocan letter, the Hatch letter offers no arguments on kratom's behalf. Rather, it urges the DEA to hold off until there has been a public comment period and the DEA has fully informed Congress about why it is placing the drug on Schedule I.
The DEA's August 31 Notice of Intent states that that the drug "is abused for its ability to produce opioid-like effects," citing its availability on the open market and its use as a recreational drug. Kratom is "just a click away" via the Internet, the notice stated.
The DEA claims 15 deaths have been associated with kratom from 2014 to 2016, but National Public Radio has reported that all but one of those deaths involved other drugs as well. And Forbes contributor David DiSalvo observes in a recent article that, by contrast, more than twice as many people in the U.S. have overdosed on caffeinated energy drinks during the same time period.
Another Forbes contributor, David Kroll, takes the DEA to task on the other factoid the agency uses to defend its decision to halt sales and importation of the drug: that from January 2010 through December 2015, U.S. poison-control centers have received 660 calls concerning kratom.
"To put kratom risks in perspective," Kroll writes, "poison control centers received 6,843 reports of young children ingesting single-load laundry pods in just the first seven months of 2016."
Such comparisons raise the obvious question: Why does the DEA want to go nuclear on kratom?
DEA spokespersons point to the agency's Notice of Intent, declining to further elaborate.
Such reticence helps to explain why Susan Ash sounds so frustrated when she talks about kratom.
Ash is the founder and director of the American Kratom Association, which is fighting the ban. She says the DEA's move makes no sense. She also points out that the classification of kratom as a Schedule I drug will impede researchers from further study of the drug and its effects.
Ash foresees the DEA's move, which could make felons of those in possession of kratom, having deadly consequences, driving the sale of kratom underground and pushing addicts back to the opioids the substance has allowed them to kick.
"The opioid-death problem is just going to rise," Ash warns. "There are tens of thousands of people using this plant as a step-down method to wean themselves off of opioids and are using it as a sort of maintenance therapy to keep them off of opiates and deal with pain issues or whatever."
Ash speaks from experience.
She refers to herself a recovering addict, explaining that she got hooked on opioids while dealing with chronic pain she was experiencing in her joints, first misdiagnosed as fibromyalgia and later diagnosed as late-stage Lyme disease. She wound up in rehab, and her doctors told her she would have to be on the drug suboxone — a treatment for opiate addiction, which itself can be habit forming — for the rest of her life.
"For eight months, I was on suboxone and noticed that I was getting into the same exact patterns that I had been with the narcotics that I had been prescribed before," Ash recalls.
She resolved to taper herself off the drug by taking daily doses of kratom, a decision she says changed her life. Now she worries the DEA ban will force her to go back to suboxone, which can cause overdose and death. She says the prospect scares her. She argues that kratom keeps her off opioids, and that if you ingest too much of it, you simply throw up. Ash describes the effect kratom has on her as akin to drinking "a nice espresso" coupled with a dose of Excedrin.
So I decided to try kratom for myself.
I bought a packet of 18 capsules at a local head shop. I took the recommended dose: six capsules. Within about an hour, I felt very relaxed, though not incapacitated in any way. The sensation was very mild and lasted three or four hours.
The sort of high you get from a puff or two of marijuana obtained from a medical dispensary is far more immediate and potent. Two or three martinis gets you really bent by comparison (at least in my experience).
Given the amount of kratom you have to consume in order to experience even a slight buzz, it doesn't seem like a practical choice for getting high. Some kratom advocates online have suggested that the DEA is acting in the interests of the pharmaceutical industry, which might perceive an inexpensive herbal remedy to be a threat to Big Pharma's prescription meds.
But Ash thinks the DEA may have been led to its decision by those who've marketed kratom irresponsibly, and by alarmist TV news accounts of the drug's dangers. She remains hopeful that the DEA may reconsider its decision given the recent pushback.
Still, she laments the uncertainty the agency has wrought in the meantime.
"So [the DEA] is putting all of these people who use kratom in a holding pattern, not knowing if they're going to be felons tomorrow," Ash says. "All of these business owners who have been doing business in good faith. It's just a complete and total mess."
Update September 30, 2016 1:18 p.m.: The final U.S. Senate letter to the DEA asking for a delay in the kratom ban is below. There were nine senators who signed the letter, including Senator Hatch.
Read the Salmon–Pocan letter to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration:
Read U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch's draft letter to the DEA:
Read the final letter from nine U.S. Senators to the DEA.