Earlier today, bending to public backlash and pressure from the U.S. Congress, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's acting administrator, Chuck Rosenberg, formally withdrew the agency's August 31 notice of intent to make the head-shop staple kratom a Schedule I drug along with substances that include heroin, peyote, and LSD.
The emergency ban on the selling, import, or possession of the drug was expected to go into effect September 30, but a campaign opposing the DEA's move, led by the American Kratom Association and joined by members of Congress, forced the agency to backpedal on plans to add mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine, the main alkaloids in the botanical substance, to its Schedule I list.
In a document dated today and published to the Federal Register — the U.S. government's daily journal —Rosenberg states that owing to "numerous comments from members of the public challenging the scheduling action," the agency will hold off on making kratom illegal and allow a comment period to run until December 1. The DEA also will ask for a scientific and medical evaluation of kratom from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, leaving the plant, for the time being, a noncontrolled substance under federal law.
Susan Ash, founder and director of the American Kratom Association, calls the DEA's action "historic" and "unprecedented," but warns kratom users that the fight to keep kratom off the Schedule I list has only just begun.
"I thought I was dreaming when I got the call from our lobbyist," Ash tells New Times. "I was always hopeful we'd get a public comment process, but once Congress got involved, [the DEA] started to take us seriously."
The first letter from Congress urging the DEA to step back from making the Southeast Asian tree Mitragyna speciosa — sold under the name kratom in powder, liquid, and capsule form — was circulated by U.S. Representative Matt Salmon, a Republican from Arizona; and Salmon's Democratic colleague, Representative Mark Pocan of Wisconsin.
The letter garnered the signatures of 51 U.S. House members from both parties, including Salmon and Pocan. (Only one other member of Arizona's House delegation signed it: Republican Paul Gosar of the state's Fourth Congressional District.) The letter was sent to the DEA on September 26.
Following on the heels of the Salmon-Pocan letter, Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah sent a similar letter, signed by nine of his colleagues, on September 29, as did a group of three other senators. On Friday, September 30, the first day the kratom ban could have kicked in, Pocan's office released a statement saying that Rosenberg had met with him and promised an extended comment period for the substance, foreshadowing today's DEA retreat.
Asked for a comment on the DEA's move, Salmon's office practically did a victory lap, emailing the following statement from Salmon spokesman Tristan Daedalus:
"Rep. Salmon is very happy that the DEA has withdrawn its brutish 'emergency rule' and is pursuing the proposed regulation with public comment and scientific input, as regulations ought to be proposed. If an evidence-based, scientific analysis concludes a ban is appropriate, it's a very different situation than officials in Washington, D.C., issuing edicts on how Americans should live their lives."
Ash appears resigned to a prolonged fight over kratom, which she says has helped her and countless others kick opioid addiction and stay sober.
"We believe we're going to be able to gather and coordinate a lot of science to oppose the listing," she explains. "But we really have our work cut out for us. The DEA is still saying that they still have plans to schedule it, they still believe its dangerous and harmful, but they're waiting on science and justification from the FDA."
Ash says her organization is asking people to "please hold tight" on bombarding the DEA with comments, predicting that the FDA and the DEA will say kratom users are "just making drug claims" and conclude that kratom should go through the process of FDA approval and perhaps even be prescribed by a doctor instead of sold openly as it is in most states now.
"We want people to be very careful with the language that they use," she says, encouraging kratom supporters to check her organization's website for advice about how to address the DEA.
She also says the kratom industry must "step up" and be willing to make changes in how the substance is marketed, such as adding warning labels about not mixing kratom with other substances like alcohol, and accepting a ban on selling the product to minors.
Kratom users say the plant, which is sometimes brewed as a tea, is no more dangerous than coffee and has an analgesic effect, alleviating pain while allowing the user to remain alert. DEA claims — that the plant's substances are addictive and can lead to hallucinations and even death — have been rebutted by various journalists, who have observed that more people overdose on caffeinated energy drinks than on kratom.
Kratom's advocates say that if people consume too much kratom, they will simply throw up, and that deaths involving kratom alone, and not mixed with other drugs, are very rare. In fact, according to a report from National Public Radio, of the 15 deaths the DEA has linked to kratom, only one did not involve other drugs.
Ash's group estimates that there are 3 million to 5 million kratom users in the U.S., while the DEA cites just 660 calls about kratom to poison control centers from 2010 to 2015. That's a paltry number, as opposed to, say, calls about kids eating single-load laundry pods, which were about 10 times that amount for the same period.
"Kratom has a safer record than aspirin does," Ash says. "It really does."
Note: Those who wish to comment to the DEA via e-mail can do so at regulations.gov. Paper comments must be postmarked on or before December 1 and mailed to: Drug Enforcement Administration, Attn: DEA Federal Register Representative/ODW, 8701 Morrissette Drive, Springfield, Virginia 22152.
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.