Six weeks ago, the Drug Enforcement Administration announced it would place an emergency ban on kratom, a leaf from Asia that some use to manage pain or opioid addiction. Now, after an outcry from users, scientists and Congress, the DEA is softening its stance.
In an unprecedented move, the Drug Enforcement Administration said it will withdraw its plan to place an emergency ban on kratom after an outcry from users and scientists who say the green leaf shows promise as a way to manage pain and opiate addiction.
Dozens of Republicans and Democrats in Congress also sent letters objecting to the DEA’s announcement that it would classify kratom as a Schedule I substance, making it a felony to possess the plant, and putting it beyond the reach of many scientists currently studying it.
Kratom, which is indigenous to Southeast Asia, has in recent years become more popular in the U.S.
Schedule I is the DEA’s most restrictive category, defined as drugs with “no currently accepted medical use,” and would have put kratom alongside heroin, LSD and cannabis.
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Changing course on a proposed drug ban, said DEA Special Agent Melvin Patterson, “is something we’ve never done before.”
The DEA initially argued that a ban was necessary because kratom and its chemical compounds “pose an imminent hazard to the public safety,” though the agency could only point to 15 kratom-related deaths in the U.S. — 14 of which also involved other drugs.
But the outcry was swift and widespread, including a march and protest on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House.
After the DEA’s August announcement, Patterson said, “There was a tsunami of people in opposition to that decision.” While some supported the ban, an overwhelming number of kratom advocates urged the DEA to reconsider. Over the past few weeks, Patterson said, he’s talked about kratom with people “from all walks,” including professors, police officers, teachers, nurses, doctors and people running drug rehabilitation facilities.
The DEA isn’t promising that it will never seek to ban kratom but plans to continue collecting public input until Dec. 1. After that, it will consider what — if anything — to do next. Patterson said the agency might schedule the drug anyway, or it might decide to take a hands-off approach and let the Food and Drug Administration decide how to regulate kratom instead.
U.S. Representative Suzan DelBene (D-Medina) petitioned the DEA to change course after hearing from kratom-using constituents. “I’m glad the DEA agreed to at least open a public comment period,” she wrote by email, “which will ensure meaningful research can continue on the potential benefits of kratom for those dealing with opioid abuse … we should be looking at every possible tool to address this epidemic.”
Researchers say they’re also relieved by the DEA’s softened approach. “This is good news and we are in the process of sharing our scientific data during this comment period,” said Christopher McCurdy, chair of the Department of BioMolecular Sciences at the University of Mississippi. Among other things, McCurdy is studying withdrawal symptoms in opioid-dependent mice. Some are taken off opioids cold turkey while others are transitioned off opioids with kratom. He says the preliminary data is promising.
But he and his colleague Edward Boyer of the University of Massachusetts Medical School say they favor regulation and rigorous research of kratom instead of simply selling it over the counter. “The 1994 Dietary Supplement and Education Act says you don’t have to provide safety and efficacy of a supplement — or require manufacturers to list the stuff they actually put in there,” Boyer said. “Right now what you buy could be kratom or it could be grass from the side of the highway sprayed with mitragynine,” one of kratom’s active alkaloids.
Boyer thinks kratom’s popularity is partly due to “the failure of American medicine — some people are buying this because they can’t get into treatment.” Kratom, he added, can be abused as well. “One of my research partners had an individual making an extract of kratom and injecting it,” he said. “If that’s not compulsive use of a substance, I don’t know what is.”
Still, he said, the DEA’s earlier plans to ban kratom outright were “simplistic.”
“This plant has utility,” he said. “I think the DEA has good intentions, but it was kind of a Luddite’s way of doing it.”
Patterson agrees that the U.S. needs more robust drug-treatment services, adding that the DEA’s mission is “enforcement, not treatment … but my heart breaks because we have people who are addicts and society has long said, ‘Let’s forget about these guys, they’re just addicts.’ I don’t feel that way at all. You shouldn’t have to pay the rest of your life for a mistake you made with a very addictive drug.”
Robin Moore of Holy Smoke, which sells kratom on Capitol Hill, says he’s glad the DEA has backed off the ban — but that even proposing it hurt business anyway. “We basically had a clearance sale,” he said, and many customers still assume they’ll never be able to buy kratom there again.
Moore uses kratom and said the idea that it would fall under the nation’s most stringent prohibition is “insane … It’s enjoyable but not extremely intoxicating. It has a slight euphoric feeling but you’re not impaired — it’s not like you’re drunk. If I take a painkiller I’m more cloudy. If I take coffee I’m not as focused.”
At Holy Smoke, he added, “We’re just really happy that it’s not a felony to have it or sell it.”