The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) announced in August that the medicinal plant kratom will be added to the list of Schedule I drugs banned by the federal government. That's the same category in which you'll find cannabis, heroin and LSD, and it means the substance has absolutely no potential medicinal benefits whatsoever. The DEA had argued that the "public comment" period that often proceeds such prohibitions was unnecessary, which pretty much no one outside the DEA would consider true. The public outcry was enormous. An online petition titled “Please do not make Kratom a Schedule I substance” collected more than 143,000 signatures in less than a month, which forced the White House to review and respond to the petition. Moreover, medical researchers called this unilateral move "insane," and a 51-person bipartisan coalition of U.S. House members petitioned the Obama administration directly to reverse it.
The Washington Post announced last week that the DEA finally caved and withdrew its proposed ban, albeit with possible plans to try again later. This is big news because, as drug policy researcher John Hudak of the Brookings Institution told The Post, "The DEA is not one to second-guess itself, no matter what the facts are."
What are the facts? Kratom has the potential to act as a non-addictive natural painkiller that could replace riskier opioids and supplant drugs like methadone in opiate replacement therapies. Such a natural medicine would threaten the enormous profits of Big Pharma, so many believe their lobbyists pushed for the proposed prohibition. If this is the case (and a logical alternative is hard to fathom), the DEA arguably put Big Pharma profits ahead of public health, just as it does with cannabis.
So what is this plant the DEA wanted to restrict more than cocaine, crystal meth and opioid painkillers? Kratom (Mitragyna speciosa) is a southeast Asian plant that's actually in the coffee family. Though traditionally chewed in Asian cultures, many Americans take the drug by swallowing capsules filled with a power form of kratom. Though not a narcotic, kratom is said to have opioid-like effects, and it has been used to treat things like chronic pain in countries like Thailand for centuries. Since its effects are similar to opioids, it's also long been used for treating opioid withdrawal, which is why many are concerned with the idea of the government banning it.
“As far as the DEA is concerned, the fact that people in other countries have used kratom for centuries to ease pain, boost work performance, and wean themselves from opiate addiction counts for nothing,” Jacob Sullum, a Forbes contributor, wrote at the time the ban went public. “All the DEA needs to know is that our shores have been invaded by a foreign drug that is increasingly popular among Americans as a home remedy and recreational intoxicant. From the DEA’s perspective, that is intolerable, regardless of the drug’s hazards or benefits.”
Advocates argue that kratom can be used to help people suffering from opioid addiction without the dangerous risks associated with other withdrawal treatment options. Though some experience adverse side effects after taking kratom, like vomiting or itchiness, kratom is seen as a relatively safe drug for most people. Much more research still needs to be done, but such research is extremely difficult to do when a drug is put in the Schedule I category. Moreover, Big Pharma corporations cannot patent a plant that grows in nature, so prohibiting kratom removes potential competition from their addictive, costly and overdose-epidemic causing opioids.
Schedule I means no medical benefits, but research suggests this is another false DEA claim. The University of Mississippi announced in 2013 that it had successfully used kratom to treat opioid withdrawal in mice better than methadone can treat it. A study from earlier this year found kratom does indeed hit the same brain receptors as opioids without the same dangerous side effects. Several clinical studies published in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, Addiction and elsewhere confirm the plant’s therapeutic benefits in treating pain and opioid dependence.
In other words, it appears the DEA tried once again to ban something with medical potential that's safer than the legal alternative.
David Jenison contributed to this story.