Republican Congressman Matt Salmon is teaming up with a liberal Democrat colleague to save the popular pain-relieving plant known as kratom from the government's blacklist.
Salmon, who will retire from representing Arizona's Fifth Congressional District in January, has co-authored a letter with progressive Wisconsin Rep. Mark Pocan, asking the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to halt its plan to add the head-shop staple to the list of so-called Schedule I drugs, which would essentially ban the substance from being imported or marketed in this country.
In late August, the DEA announced its intention to place kratom — a plant indigenous to Southeast Asia that is sold in various forms online and in smoke shops — in the same category as LSD, heroin, peyote, and pot, all of which the DEA deems as having no legitimate medicinal use. The agency's notice of intent states that this move, which becomes official September 30, is necessary "to avoid an imminent hazard to the public safety," citing kratom's use as an opioid substitute, a spike in calls to poison-control centers about kratom, and "numerous deaths" the DEA says are associated with the drug.
In response, as first reported on Monday by Forbes writer David DiSalvo, Salmon and Pocan are circulating a "dear colleague" letter among fellow members of Congress, seeking their support for a delay to the DEA move. The congressmen argue that the drug, which is often crushed into a powder form and mixed with water or brewed as a tea, has positive uses, such as alleviating chronic pain and helping addicts withdraw from opioids or alcohol.
Reached by New Times, Salmon spokesman Tristan Daedalus explains via e-mail that kratom seems "more akin to an analgesic like aspirin or acetaminophen" than to Schedule I drugs such as heroin. Salmon is not suggesting that kratom go unregulated, writes Daedalus, but the federal government should explain how it reached its decision and request comments from the scientific community and the general public.
Asked whether Salmon's position on kratom in any way conflicts with the congressman's stated opposition to Prop 205, the ballot measure that would legalize the recreational use of marijuana in Arizona, Daedalus says no, citing Salmon's somewhat libertarian arguments against legal pot.
"From my understanding of the Congressman’s position on Prop. 205," Daedalus writes, "his concerns there are based on a number of issues related to the growth of state government, enforcement costs, and the dangers of edibles presented to children."
Salmon's kratom letter makes similar arguments to those made by kratom advocates, pointing out that the plant Mitragyna speciosa is a relative of the coffee plant, and that kratom's main alkaloid, mitragynine, "binds to some of the same receptors as opioids, providing some pain relief and a calming effect, but not the same high." Also, the letter contends that mitragynine "doesn't cause the same, sometimes deadly, side effects as opioids, such as respiratory depression."
Ominously, the letter warns of the potential deleterious effect of assigning kratom to Schedule I:
The National Institutes of Health has funded a joint study conducted by 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.
Since the DEA made its announcement, there has been a vigorous push-back from those who see kratom as an inexpensive and natural remedy for pain as well as a method to self-treat opioid addiction. An online petition asking the White House to reverse the DEA's decision has received more than 132,000 signatures, and on September 13, kratom supporters rallied in front of the White House, chanting "Don't take away kratom," some wearing T-shirts that read, "I am kratom."
National Public Radio and other outlets have reported on the proliferation of YouTube videos from kratom users, some of them U.S. military veterans, speaking to the drug's help with managing pain, combating depression and PTSD, and battling addiction. NPR also reports that the DEA has been inundated with phone calls from citizens angry about the ban.
In a last-ditch effort this week, kratom supporters and pro-kratom groups such as the American Kratom Association are encouraging people to call their representatives in Congress, asking them to sign the Salmon–Pocan letter.
Locally, head-shop owners in greater Phoenix are planning to sell kratom until the end of September, when the ban kicks in. Chris Morris, co-owner of Phoenix's Paraphernalia Boutique, which has been in business since 1976, says September 30 will be the last day his shop sells kratom. So far, Morris hasn't seen a spike in sales, but he says the shop is not buying any more because of the DEA's decision.
Morris says his customers mostly purchase kratom in capsule form. A small pack of the capsules costs $20; a bottle goes for $62.50. He calls kratom "one of our best-selling products" and estimates that the drug accounts for about 10 percent of his store's sales.
Feedback from kratom purchasers has been overwhelmingly positive, according to Morris, who says his customers describe the substance to him as a life-saving supplement. One woman related how kratom allowed her to avoid using opioids for pain, and that on kratom, she is able to function and feel normal, by comparison.
Morris says the DEA's Schedule I plan has dealt a severe blow to his customers. "I've definitely seen a lot of sadness in their eyes — like, 'How could anyone do this to us?'" he says.
He thinks the move to ban kratom is a dumb idea.
"You have to have either a donkey brain or you have to have an agenda that speaks to some kind of profit [to support the ban]," Morris says. "Because I can't imagine why anybody or any entity would ever want to take something like this out of the public's hands when it's been doing so good."
Like Morris, Juan Sayegh, owner of It's All Goodz Smoke Shop, which has locations in Phoenix and Tempe, opposes the DEA move and says most people buying kratom aren't using it to get high but to alleviate pain or combat addiction.
"I don't think it's a product that has a high abuse level," Sayegh explains. "You've got to take a lot of it, the effects are not really that good to get high off of."
Sayegh says his stores sell kratom in powder, pill, and liquid forms, and that they will cease sales on September 28. The powder, made of crushed kratom leaves, is the form of the drug most popular with his customers, Sayegh says, adding that kratom sales account for 10 to 15 percent of his business. He hasn't seen a recent run on kratom, but he suspects that's because most people who want to buy in bulk are doing so online.
The product is safe, Sayegh insists, and he rebuts the DEA's report of 15 kratom-related deaths between 2014 and 2016, citing news reports from NPR and other outlets that 14 of those deaths involved other drugs taken in addition to kratom.
"I believe [the DEA ban] is ridiculous," he says. "There's not enough information on it. I do know the clientele that comes in to buy it has bigger problems, like pharmaceutical pills that they're trying to wean off of that makes them nonfunctioning."
He compares the DEA's position on kratom to the agency's stance on pot, i.e., denying there's any medicinal use to the latter, when there is so much evidence to the contrary.
"There's a need for this product," says Sayegh. "It's sad, people are coming in saying, 'I'm going to have to go back to these pain pills. It just ruins my life, it's too much.'"
Read the kratom letter from U.S. Reps. Matt Salmon (R-Arizona) and Mark Pocan (D-Wisconsin):
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.