The Drug Enforcement Administration released a letter on August 31 stating its intention to add kratom to the list of Schedule I controlled substances, joining the ranks of the most dangerous narcotics such as heroin, LSD and, of course, marijuana.

Those who have followed cannabis’ ongoing struggle to have its scheduling status changed might see history repeating itself. Like cannabis, kratom is an organic plant that has been used medicinally for generations, often for chronic pain. But how similar are the two plants? And could a decision by the DEA now lock kratom into the same legal purgatory that marijuana has found itself in for decades?

Kratom has grown substantially in usage in the U.S. in recent years, and has been called “a sort of miracle herb,” by those who use it, according to Gizmodo, “one that helps alleviate the side effects of opioid withdrawal without itself being addictive.” It is also seen as preferable to opioids because it doesn’t carry the respiratory side effects that opioids have.

“When you overdose on these drugs, your respiratory rate drops to zero,” Edward Boyer, emergency medicine professor and director of medical toxicology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, told Scientific American. Boyer explained that rats given an active compound in kratom experienced no respiratory depression. “This opens the possibility of someday developing a pain medication as effective as morphine but without the risk of accidentally overdosing and dying.”

But there is a downside to kratom. Because it is currently unregulated in the U.S., companies have been selling cheap, potentially toxic products containing kratom which have lead to negative side effects and even fatalities.

That’s why the DEA is acting quick to put a temporary ban on the substance’s active chemicals mitragynine and 7- hydroxymitragynine. The agency says that U.S. law enforcement seized more kratom in the first half of this year than any year previous, according to the Extract.

But many of the DEA’s claims are, according to Gizmodo writers, “not particularly well-sourced or investigated,” and points out a major error in the agency’s letter when it calls kratom an opioid several times, which it isn’t.

The Schedule I status is temporary, and will last between two to three years while the government determines the medicinal and toxic effects of kratom.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons


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