Why Kratom Is Not the New Bath Salts
Maybe don't be so quick to dismiss kratom as a devil weed.
“I started taking kratom roughly five years ago,” *Shane tells The KIND.
Kratom is an herbal drug derived from a tree that grows in Southeast Asia. According to online substance information hub, Tripsit, kratom has historically been taken as a “recreational drug, a painkiller, medicine for diarrhea, and treatment for opiate addiction.”
That last application is where Shane first dove in.
“I had just finished an opiate rehab program, and coming off of the Suboxone was about as rough as coming off of the opioids,” Shane says. “I worked at a head shop at the time, and we carried kratom in the store. I had unlimited access to it. It just kind of became part of my daily routine.”
At the federal level, kratom is uncontrolled. It is also on the Drug Enforcement Administration's list of drugs for concern. In Indonesia, one of the countries where it is cultivated, processed, used prolifically by locals, and eventually exported around the world––it has been illegal to plant since 1943. In May of this year, kratom was banned in Alabama. A similar bill, which cites a high potential for abuse, is being shopped around in North Carolina. In New York and Florida, kratom is sold alongside kava and yerba mate and cold brew coffee at cafes; is as ubiquitous, like pressed juice. Elsewhere around the country, it is sold at smoke shops, like the one Shane worked in, under brand names that include VivaZen, American Kratom, Captain Kratom, Experience Kratom, and Phoria.
The DEA says there is “no legitimate medical use for kratom.” The Daily Beast called it “the next bath salts.” The New York Times says the possibility of becoming addicted to kratom is "very real." The Huffington Post seemingly concurs, and says kratom users are treating "addiction with addiction."
“I took it every day for something like four years, and would feel withdrawal symptoms if I suddenly stopped,” Shane tells The KIND. “When I tapered off of it, though, and didn’t stop ‘cold turkey,’ the withdrawal symptoms were almost nonexistent.”
“Kratom is getting the same treatment that cannabis has received for years. It’s being branded as ‘dangerous’ by people with a vested interest in the pharmaceutical industry.”
According to a 2008 study on self-treating opioid withdrawal with kratom, “one striking finding of this report is the extent to which kratom attenuates potentially severe opioid withdrawal,” the study’s lead researcher concludes. “Yet cessation of kratom administration itself appears to be associated with modest abstinence symptoms.”
Perhaps most importantly, the study notes, “The natural history of kratom use, including its clinical pharmacology and toxicology, are poorly understood.”
Susan Ash, founder and director of the American Kratom Association––a group that advocates for the drug’s legal status and increased research––says kratom changed her life. After suffering from chronic pain and becoming addicted to the opioid painkillers prescribed to treat it, Ash sought a new solution. She says any comparison of kratom to OxyContin, or heroin, or bath salts, is simply not accurate, and that the potential for abuse is far over-stated.
“Kratom is getting the same treatment that cannabis has received for years,” Ash tells The KIND. “It’s being branded as ‘dangerous’ by people with a vested interest in the pharmaceutical industry.”
Ash cites current trends in how kratom is marketed and packaged––which could be seen as misleading and also attractive to children––and where it is sold as partly to blame for the alleged mischaracterization of kratom in the mainstream news cycle. Such coverage usually relies on a sensational headline that casts kratom as the teenage drug scare du jour.
“Kratom users are often characterized as kids going to head shops in search of a legal high,” Ash tells The KIND. “It’s kind of the exact opposite of that. The average age of the membership of my organization is closer to 40 years old,” Ash says.
“There are indeed unscrupulous kratom manufacturers who blatantly sell this as an opiate substitute; a legal high,” Ash concedes.
Shane seems to concur: “The problem with kratom, at least from when I stopped, is that the potency can be extremely inconsistent,” he tells The KIND. “Not knowing how potent a batch from the same company would be, from one bag to the next, can lead to taking too much. It's not like overdosing on heroin or anything, but it is definitely not comfortable.”
"As much as many people wish it did, kratom simply cannot provide the user with the same ‘escape’ that harder drugs do. It doesn’t work like that.”
There are numerous guides, forums, and online resources where kratom users can discuss everything from dosage amounts to reputable retailers. Ash believes that kratom is most often taken as self-medication for pain, anxiety, and opioid addiction. Unfortunately, due to kratom’s gray-area status, at no point in the supply chain between cultivation and retail sales are manufacturers required to submit their product to any regulatory body.
Since it’s not being sold as a food or a supplement, kratom isn't afforded the opportunity to be classified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as “Generally Regarded as Safe,”or GRAS.
“Nobody is denying kratom activates your opiate receptors,” admits Ash over the phone. She's en route to North Carolina where she’ll be attending a hearing to provide a counter to the current narrative surrounding kratom in the Tar Heel State.
“Even The Path, a Hulu original series released this year, depicts a former addict managing pain with Suboxone," laments Ash. "It’s everywhere. Kratom is not like a prescription painkiller, which addicts will stockpile and save up in order to abuse. It does give a boost in mood, and treats pain, which is being translated as a ‘high.’ It’s not like more kratom will enhance the euphoria, or numb the pain. As much as many people wish it did, kratom simply cannot provide the user with the same ‘escape’ that harder drugs do. It doesn’t work like that.”
I ask Ash about the reported dangers associated with kratom. “Perhaps people are combining kratom with other drugs, and kratom is a vehicle of delivery for other substances,” she replies.
A kratom enthusiast on a Reddit forum notes that when combined with cannabis: “It amplifies the effects of both; so I'd recommend against anything other than a few pulls of a vaporizer to take the nausea away.”
Most rehab programs view any implementation of kratom into addiction treatment as an all-out relapse.
When a company can enter an unregulated market and make a lot of money in just a few months, little regard is given to any long-term vision. Products are pulled from shelves as they become banned. Part of why so-called synthetic cannabis (spice) and other legal highs are so destructive in major cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and even now overseas, is because the chemical formula used to produce most of the synthetic drugs hitting the market is fluid, modified with each crackdown by authorities.
Kratom is less expensive when purchased online, and in bulk. A few head shops in the Los Angeles area we visited, sell portions in capsules at around $1-per-gram, in 30-capsule bags.
"I think a mixture of the capsules, and the liquid shots are what makes it so popular," Shane remarks. "A fast-acting shot is also an easier sell than some expensive capsules."
In the sense that both substances are relatively benign, allowing users to “experiment” to determine optimum individual dosages, Ash sees parallels between kratom and medical marijuana. Still, her foundation advocates for formal clinical use trials and regulations around kratom packaging as necessary steps toward claiming kratom as an herb of value. Most rehab programs view any implementation of kratom into addiction treatment as an all-out relapse.
“If kratom was regulated effectively so that alkaloid content was consistent, it could be pretty helpful to a lot of people,” Shane says. “When I went to rehab, and was put on Suboxone, I rapidly lost so much weight that I was almost ejected from the program.”
In 2014, the substance saw a temporary import ban as advised by the FDA. In the same year, U.S. marshals seized 25,000 pounds of "raw kratom materials," said to be worth more than $5 million, from a distributor in Van Nuys, California.
From the FDA press release:
“‘We have identified kratom as a botanical substance that poses a risk to public health and has the potential for abuse,’ said Melinda Plaisier, the FDA’s associate commissioner for regulatory affairs. ‘This action was taken to safeguard the public from this dangerous product, and FDA will continue to take aggressive enforcement actions against products that are promoted for uses that are unapproved.’”
Shane, who often dealt with kratom vendors and suppliers while managing inventory at the head shop, says, “With the ban on importing kratom, it became much harder to get in large quantities; so a lot of companies were cutting it with damiana leaf, or other chemicals.”
Do blanket bans safeguard the public from kratom? Or do these crackdowns expose consumers to graver risks from tainted products? Harder, legal substances such as OxyContin continue to be prescribed––for unfathomable profits, and under questionable pretense––despite clear evidence linking these chemicals to the deaths of 46,000 people a year in the United States alone.
The War on Drugs seems to have been an ill-conceived expression of systemic racism and malicious intent. Shouldn’t we now question the policies and attitudes it has cemented into the status quo? According to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, opiate overdoses from legal pharmaceuticals have increased 200 percent in the past 15 years.
Much of this harrowing addiction has come about because consumers blindly followed doctor’s orders. The verdict is still out on kratom. Instead of reacting with fear and marginalizing, perhaps we should, well, follow the doctors orders, and learn a bit more about it.
All photos by Ben Parker Karris for The KIND.
*Name withheld at request of source.