By Wesley Gallagher
With the opioid epidemic at crisis levels, officials are on high alert for new drugs showing up on the market. Substances like fentanyl have surfaced with devastating consequences as drug users seek new and different ways to fulfill their needs and desires.
One substance, called kratom, is actually a centuries-old substance that has only recently gained popularity in the US. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) describes kratom as a tropical tree native to Southeast Asia with leaves that contain psychoactive opioid compounds. It has been consumed in its native countries for centuries for its mood-lifting, pain-relieving and aphrodisiac properties.1
Currently legal in the US, kratom is easily purchased online and in head shops and convenience stores in powder form or as an extract or gum and increasingly sold in bars in the form of a drink or tea. Its leaves can be chewed, smoked or eaten as well. Common nicknames for kratom include herbal speedball, biak-biak, ketum, kahuam, ithang and thorn.1
How Does Kratom Work, and Why Do People Use It?
Kratom leaves contain compounds that interact with opioid receptors in the brain, producing sedation, pleasure and decreased pain, especially when consumed in large quantities. In smaller quantities, it can produce more stimulating effects like increased energy, sociability and alertness.1
Because kratom acts similarly to opioids, some people use it recreationally for its euphoric effects, while others take kratom to treat things like pain, anxiety and depression. It’s even touted as an herbal alternative to medical treatment for withdrawal symptoms and cravings caused by addiction to opioids, other drugs and alcohol.
Concerns About Kratom
While hailed by many sellers and consumers as a safe, healing, plant-based substance, kratom is not without its risks. It’s a controlled substance in some of its native countries, as well as many others, due to widespread abuse. However, American research on the drug is still in its infancy.
There’s no scientific evidence that kratom is safe or effective for any medicinal use. Despite claims that it has helped people safely wean off other addictive substances, kratom has also shown potential for dependence and abuse. According to NIDA, kratom users have reported withdrawal symptoms similar to those of opioids, including:
- Muscle aches
- Emotional changes
- Runny nose
- Jerky movements1
While kratom alone isn’t associated with overdose deaths, you can’t always be sure what you’re getting when you buy it. Commercial forms have been known to contain other compounds that ultimately proved fatal.1
What’s Being Done About Kratom?
The New York Times reports that kratom is currently categorized as a botanic dietary supplement. That means the FDA can’t regulate kratom sales unless it’s either proven unsafe or producers claim it treats a medical condition.2 Until then, kratom remains somewhat in limbo.
A handful of states have outlawed the drug, but efforts to make it illegal across the US have thus far been stalled. In 2014, the FDA banned the import of kratom into the US, and the DEA has listed it as a “drug of concern” but not a controlled substance — a categorization that requires proven health risks and abuse potential.2
The FDA issued a recent public health advisory listing mounting concerns about kratom. Not only are people using kratom to treat serious medical conditions that should be left in the hands of licensed healthcare professionals — like pain, anxiety, depression and addiction — but evidence increasingly points to harms associated with the drug. For example, calls to US poison control centers regarding kratom increased tenfold from 2010 to 2015, with hundreds of calls made yearly. Kratom use has also been associated with serious side effects, including seizures, liver damage and withdrawal symptoms, and the FDA is aware of several deaths associated with the use of products containing kratom.3
Potential Dangers of Kratom Use
A catalyst in the DEA and FDA’s efforts to control kratom was the death of 20-year-old Ian Mautner in July 2014.4 According to his mother, Linda Mautner, Ian had been struggling with an addiction to kratom when he drove his car to the top of an overpass and jumped off of it.
Ian had been introduced to kratom at a local kava bar as a junior in high school. It was seen as a cool thing to do, and he even invited his mom and other family members to join him. By the year leading up to his death, he had lost weight, become pale and gaunt, and he was experiencing mood swings, anger, lethargy, vivid dreams and hallucinations.
“My son was one special young man,” his mother shares on Heroes in Recovery, “and he took his own life because of an addiction to this unregulated, legal, herbal product and its containments.” While this may not be the typical experience of kratom users, it’s an experience that cannot be ignored.
Groups advocating for kratom as a therapeutic substance have slowed action against the drug, as they seek more research into its uses with hope it will be found beneficial. People like Linda Mautner, however, hope to see the opposite outcome.
In the meantime, kratom remains a largely unregulated, under-researched substance in the US, which is a dangerous place for any drug, helpful or harmful, to be.
Help Is Just a Phone Call Away
Are you struggling with kratom addiction? Or do you love someone who does? Our admissions team can help you make sense of your insurance benefits so you can choose the treatment option that’s right for you. Call our toll-free helpline to get started on the path to recovery today.
1 “What Is Kratom?” National Institute on Drug Abuse, Last updated February 2016.
2 Schwarz, Alan. “Kratom, an Addict’s Alternative, Is Found to Be Addictive Itself.” The New York Times, January 2, 2016.
3 “Statement from FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, on FDA advisory about deadly risks associated with kratom.” US Food & Drug Administration, November 14, 2017.
4 Gruley, Bryan. “Is Kratom a Deadly Drug or a Life-Saving Medicine?” Bloomberg Businessweek, December 12, 2016.