The Controlled Substances Act of 1971 might be getting a facelift—and the outcome is not looking good for kratom and psychedelic advocates. Meet the SITSA Act, or Stop the Importation and Trafficking of Synthetic Analogues Act of 2017, introduced to Congress last month by Senators Dianne Feinstein and Chuck Grassley.
According to the American Kratom Association, this law could get passed much sooner than later. In an email dated July 11th, new Chairman of the Board Dave Herman wrote: “Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, wants the SITSA Act pushed through the House before the upcoming August recess to show action in the fight against the opioid epidemic—so there will be little time for consideration of any amendments in this accelerated scheduling.”
The bill is the latest in a congressional effort to crack down on synthetic drug analogues by expanding the reach of the U.S. Justice Department. SITSA would allow an attorney general to place any chemical “substantially similar” to an already-banned drug into a new category, “Schedule A,” for up to five years. Thirteen fentanyl analogues will be immediately advanced to Schedule A should the bill become law.
Substances lumped into Schedule A will technically be Schedule III, allowing for scientific research on the chemicals to still progress. The law also won’t criminalize personal possession—just manufacturing or distribution.
The current criteria for banning a drug requires the Attorney General and the Secretary of Health and Human Services to satisfy at least three of eight factors, proving the drug is a likely risk to public health.
But under SITSA, that scientific and medicinal rigor would no longer be required. To be banned, all a chemical needs is “an actual or predicted physiological effect on the human body equal to or greater than an existing controlled substance,” according to a fact sheet by the bill’s writers.
In other words, it doesn’t matter if a drug is truly dangerous or even psychoactive at all—so long as lawmakers can predict it will do something.
“This is a giant step backwards, and really it’s doing the bidding of Jeff Sessions as he tries to escalate the war on drugs,” Michael Collins, a deputy director at the Drug Policy Alliance, told The Washington Post. He said SITSA will give “the attorney general a ton of power in terms of scheduling drugs and pursuing penalties.”
Kratom leaves // Image via Wikimedia Commons user ThorPorre
Naturally, this bill has worried kratom advocates, who fear SITSA opens a backdoor to ban their favorite herb. Kratom is a tropical tree from Southeast Asia related to coffee. In its leaves are alkaloids that offer a multitude of medicinal benefits, especially pain relief.
Side effects are reportedly mild, and while kratom is slightly addictive, withdrawals are weak, according to the bulk of research on the herb. It’s long been recognized as an effective treatment for opioid addiction since at least 1895, and is considered by some to be a natural alternative to methadone.
Still, kratom was almost banned by the Drug Enforcement Administration on August 30, 2016. The DEA backed down after overwhelming protests from the public and members of congress. Yet, that win could be short-lived.
“SITSA would allow [the] DEA to sweep in substances that pose no actual abuse potential and precedent indicates DEA would take full advantage of the broad language in the legislation,” the American Kratom Association said in a public statement from their lawyers. “SITSA as drafted would significantly expand the universe of drugs or substances that DEA could immediately control with little notice to legitimate stakeholders or input from experts and with few curbs on the authority of DEA.”
Lauren Krisai, the director of Criminal Justice Reform at the Reason Foundation, echoed those sentiments. “Historically speaking, looking at all these different laws that have allowed us to schedule more and more substances hasn’t really reduced drug use or overdoses or anything like that, so I don’t know why this would be any different,” she told The Daily Beast.
It’s not technically an opioid, but because kratom is a μ-opioid receptor agonist, it could be tossed into Schedule A thanks to SITSA. (To understand the difference between an opioid and an opioid receptor agonist, remember that some cheeses contain opioid peptides with agonistic activity. Does that really mean Brie could be made illegal under SITSA? It’s hard to speculate, but given the broad scope of the bill, it’s not out of the question.)
SITSA still needs to pass the House and the Senate before it lands on President Trump’s desk, but in the meantime, here’s what you can do to stop it.
Contact your representatives and senators. Their offices must log every phone call, email, letter and tweet, so your voice will be heard. You don’t need to mention kratom, because it’s not specifically mentioned in the bill, but be sure to emphasize that SITSA is too broad, lacking in checks and balances, and leaves no room for scientific review.
Finally, talk to grandma about kratom. This last suggestion may seem quaint, but one of the most effective changes you can make in terms of drug policy is being open with your family members about effective drug policy.