Just Say Maybe: Should Kratom Be Banned or Not?

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Columbia University Chemist Andrew Kruegel is researching Kratom

In early October, I walked in to Kavasutra in the East Village — a bar that serves psychedelic teas rather than alcohol — and asked for something called kratom. The bartenders weren’t sure what to say.

One said sales of kratom were “on hold.” Then another said, “You can try it if you want but you might not be able to get a hold of it soon.” And he showed me bottles of the thick brew stored behind the bar, the strongest strain selling for $25 a bottle.

The mixed messages were a result of a federal action to declare kratom illegal. About two months ago, the Drug Enforcement Agency initiated a process to add kratom to its list of “Schedule I” drugs, alongside heroin and cocaine, outlawing its use. They called the drug a “hazard to public safety,” with potential for abuse and fatalities.

But users flooded the DEA with complaints, and now the agency says it is “the right thing to step back” – which is why the agency announced on Thursday it would retract its initial proposal. Now, they're accepting public comments on how to classify kratom. They also said the Food and Drug Administration would provide a scientific and medical evaluation to put the risks of the drug in a wider context. While the agency originally cited 15 kratom-associated deaths as a reason to ban the substance, 14 of those users had more than just kratom in their systems when they died.

Supporters of kratom said they relied on the tea to keep them off stronger drugs, like oxycodone and heroin. Kratom, they said, offered a high that was not as intense and lasted a shorter time. It prevented them from falling back into addiction.

“It’s so mild and fleeting,” says Moose Rowe, who went to Washington this summer to protest the possible ban. “Instead of a big warm hug that you get from like heroin… it’s more like a tickle.”

Andrew Kruegel, a chemist at Columbia University, said that mild high suggests kratom could help scientists develop a safer painkiller. Most current opioids have life-threatening side effects, specifically something called “respiratory depression” which can cause a user to stop breathing and die. Kruegel said his lab work showed kratom might provide pain relief without triggering respiratory failure.

Worried a ban could halt his research, Kruegel said he's drafting his letter to regulators. In it, he planned to cite the tens of thousands of deaths in the U.S. caused each year by drugs like heroin and oxycodone. He said the only way he can prove that kratom could reduce that number, or not, is if federal officials allowed his work to continue. 

The public comment period runs through Dec. 1.