Kratom: It's Legal, But Could it Be Deadly?

The substance is now in the crosshairs of the opioid debate.

Chances are you’ve never heard of a substance called Kratom. It is variously described as a dietary supplement, or an herb, or an outright drug. To many, it’s a miracle cure.

And there’s an effort to ban it in Illinois.

“It’s actually a leaf from a southeast Asian tree that looks somewhat similar to an evergreen,” says Dennis Wichern, Special Agent in Charge for the Drug Enforcement Administration in Chicago. “It’s ground up and some people believe it has some form of medicinal value.”

Kratom is legal in Illinois. But now it’s front and center in the growing debate over opioid abuse. That’s because the drug works on the same receptors in the brain. And while proponents believe it can help those fighting to wean themselves from opiates, many regulators say it may do just the opposite.

“We have to let science dictate as to whether it’s a good drug or not,” says Wichern. “And so far, science hasn’t.”

Kratom users argue they’ve seen its positive effects first hand.

“I was on pain pills for a long time, I mean years,” says Rhoni Silva of Moline. “As long as I get the right dose, I don’t feel the sickness that I do get from pain pills.”

Silva claims Kratom’s pain relief is faster and smoother than any other drug she has tried.

“Instantaneous,” she says. “Five minutes!”

Long found in smoke shops, even service stations and online sites, Kratom is now mainstream enough that there are three retail stores in the Chicagoland area.

“It helps people get through withdrawal,” says Matthew Warren, manager of CBD Kratom in Bucktown. “We do get a lot of people who use it for that.”

Warren’s store features dozens of strains of the southeast Asian plant, labeled red for euphoria, white for pain relief, and green for stimulation.

“I have first-hand experience of giving kratom to friends of my own going through opioid withdrawal, and I physically saw a difference within about five minutes,” Warren said. “It really helps a lot of people, and I think there’s a lot to learn from it.”

The FDA disagrees. Last year, the drug agency retreated from an effort to brand kratom a schedule one menace, akin to cocaine, after over 50 congressmen protested that its purported medicinal values deserved greater study.

But just lasts month, FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb issued a new public health advisory, citing “mounting concerns” about kratom’s risks.

“Kratom has similar effects to narcotics like opioids, and carries similar risks of abuse, addiction, and in some cases, death,” Gottlieb wrote. “At a time when we have hit a critical point in the opioid epidemic, the increasing use of kratom as an alternative or adjunct to opioid use is extremely concerning.”

The FDA advisory cited a tenfold increase in kratom-related calls to poison control centers, and reports of 36 deaths associated with the drug.

“We must ask ourselves whether the use of Kratom, for recreation, pain, or other reasons, could expand the opioid epidemic,” he said.

Back at the kratom shop, Warren said he believes his product is as safe as coffee.

“I’ve been selling this for about two years,” he said. “I haven’t had anyone ever have any kind of dangerous reaction to kratom.”

The Cook County Medical Examiner’s office told NBC5 Investigates they’ve seen five kratom-related deaths in the last two years. But advocates of the substance argue virtually everyone nationwide reported in a kratom-related death had other drugs in their systems.

The author of a study commissioned by the American Kratom Association suggested that regulation of kratom should not go beyond what is currently done with “coffee, tea, and related extracts.”

Dr. Jack Henningfield of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine wrote that banning kratom “is not warranted from a public health perspective, and is more likely to cause public health problems that do not exist.”

Indeed, an article last year in Forbes magazine argued that reports of overdoses and deaths were overblown. Yes, there had been 660 calls to poison centers related to kratom exposure, contributor Jacob Sullum wrote. But that amounts to .004 percent of the 3 million calls the centers receive each year, he noted, compared with some 300,000 calls involving analgesics.

A recent study by doctors from Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood also found that “serious toxicity is rare, and usually involves relatively high doses or co-ingestants.”

But that same study warned of kratom’s potential for addiction, a point conceded by Silva, the kratom user from western Illinois.

“I will agree that there is a potential to be addictive,” she said. “It works on the same receptors.”

Silva, while enthusiastic about the drug’s pain relieving qualities and its potential for opioid relief, conceded she had experienced some withdrawal symptoms when she had tried to stop using it.

“I did have to back down a little because I could feel where I’d be out somewhere and I’d really want to take my kratom.”

Some have compared those urges to feelings of caffeine withdrawal. But the DEA’s Wichern argues there is simply too much which isn’t known.

“This isn’t a drug that you want to take by yourself without medical supervision,” he said. “Nobody’s submitted any research to show the value of this drug.”

Kratom is currently banned in five states, including Wisconsin and Indiana. A bill is pending in Springfield which would make it illegal in Illinois as well. Repeated calls and emails to the legislation’s sponor, Rep. Katie Stuart of Collinsville, went unanswered.

“I think they should concentrate on the real opiate problem,” Silva said. “And leave kratom alone.”

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