Kratom Madness! The Head-Shop Staple Remains Legal — But for How Long?

Cracks have appeared in the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s plan to outlaw kratom, a popular plant-based pain reliever that’s sold online and in smoke shops in powder, liquid, and capsule form.

This past Friday, September 30 — the day the ban was expected to take effect — Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan, who along with Arizona Congressman Matt Salmon has been lobbying the DEA for a stay, met with the agency’s acting administrator, Chuck Rosenberg.

Pocan then issued a press release stating that rather than lower the boom, “It appears the DEA will instead open up a modified comment process before a final decision will be made.” Pocan said the timing of the comment period remains undetermined.

As this column goes to press, the DEA has yet to confirm Pocan’s announcement. Still, the news offers a glimmer of hope for kratom users, who’d been expecting that the DEA would follow through on its August notice of intent to place 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. 

Ostensibly, the nation’s kratom crisis was so dire that the DEA was forced to play its “imminent hazard to public safety” card. In accordance with the U.S. Controlled Substances Act, kratom would be listed as Schedule I for up to three years, after which the DEA would hold a hearing and solicit public comment if it intended to make the classification permanent.

Kratom adherents cried foul, inundating the DEA with phone calls and uploading YouTube videos lambasting the federal agency for the move. In response, Salmon and Pocan spearheaded a bipartisan effort to lobby the DEA to delay placing the substance in the same category as LSD, heroin, and peyote. 
Pocan’s announcement is a far cry from the official line that has been coming out of DEA headquarters. Last week, when I asked DEA spokesman Melvin Patterson if the public outrage and congressional lobbying effort was making any headway, his one-word reply was: “No.”

A second DEA spokesperson, Barbara Carrero told me she couldn’t comment on Pocan’s press release. But she promised the DEA would give the public 24 hours’ notice before making the ban official. Carrero also noted that in 2010, when the DEA announced its intention to place a group of synthetic cannabinoids on Schedule I, the listing did not become effective until months later.

So kratom remains legal — for the moment.

Susan Ash, founder and director of the American Kratom Association, says that if Pocan is right, the DEA’s concession is unprecedented.

“They’re bending a little bit,” says Ash, who is convinced that kratom is a safe, natural pain reliever that permits users to avoid narcotics and even can help addicts wean themselves off opioids. “[The DEA] is being very clear that they still believe [the ban] is going to happen, regardless. But it is historic. Nothing like this has ever been done [after] an emergency scheduling process had been initiated.”

Ash believes that if the tide does turn, Pocan and Salmon will have played a crucial role.

Late last month, Salmon, a Republican, and Pocan, a Democrat, circulated a letter among their fellow representatives citing kratom’s benefits and asking the DEA to postpone its pending designation. A total of 51 House members signed the letter, which was sent to the DEA on September 26. (Only one member of Arizona’s House delegation besides Salmon signed the letter: Republican Paul Gosar.)

On the Senate side, Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah circulated a letter that was signed by eight of his colleagues. Rather than offer arguments on kratom’s behalf, Hatch’s letter urged the DEA to wait 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.
Additionally, three other senators signed a separate letter to the DEA seeking a stay, and Pocan and U.S. Representative Hank Johnson of Georgia sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch — DEA administrator Rosenberg’s boss — slamming the DEA’s “hasty decision” and asking her to intervene.

(If you’re keeping score at home, neither of Arizona’s U.S. senators — Jeff Flake and John McCain — has signed any of the aforementioned missives. Nor did their offices return my calls requesting comment for this column.)

The DEA claims kratom is abused for its opioid-like effects and says 15 deaths have been associated with kratom from 2014 to 2016.

That statistic is a matter of dispute, as all but one of those deaths reportedly involved other drugs as well. 

Additionally, Forbes contributor David DiSalvo observed in a recent article that more than twice as many people in the U.S. have overdosed on caffeinated energy drinks during the same time period.

David Kroll, a fellow Forbes contributor, took the DEA to task on the other factoid the agency uses to bolster its stance: that from January 2010 through December 2015, U.S. poison-control centers have received 660 calls concerning kratom.

“To put kratom risks in perspective,” wrote Kroll, “poison-control centers received 6,843 reports of young children ingesting single-load laundry pods in just the first seven months of 2016.”

Ash, a former addict, says daily kratom use has allowed her to kick and stay off far more debilitating prescription drugs. She predicts that if the DEA ban is allowed to go into effect, addicts will be forced back onto opioids, further exacerbating what is already an addiction epidemic.

Ash calls the DEA’s proposed ban ridiculous, and I have to agree.

I tried kratom for myself recently, purchasing a pack of 18 capsules from a local head shop and swallowing the recommended dose of six pills.

I felt very relaxed for a couple of hours, though not incapacitated in any way. Compared to kratom, the high you get from a puff or two of marijuana obtained from a medical dispensary is far more immediate, and more potent. And two or three stiff martinis get you really bent (at least in my experience).

Despite being legal in one form or another in 24 states, marijuana remains a Schedule I drug. Alcohol, meanwhile, is both legal and ubiquitous, while cocaine is Schedule II — meaning that despite its potency and potential for addiction, it has an accepted medical use. There’s abundant evidence that heroin, a Schedule I drug, can kill you; kratom, not so much. It seems absurd that they should sit side by side.

The possibility that kratom might keep addicts away from more harmful substances should be of more interest to the DEA than the fact that some people may use it for recreation. Alas, it seems clear the DEA has it in for green, leafy plants that may be beneficial for mankind and make you feel good.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons