Kratom leaf

Image source: Wikimedia user ThorPorre.

When the DEA announced their sudden decision to classify kratom as a Schedule 1 substance earlier this summer, people went into an uproar. Practitioners, scientists, and even politicians threw their weight into the fight to delay the emergency rescheduling of the plant many use to treat addiction. Some of the backlash—a letter to the DEA from three US senators, in particular—got through to the federal agency and, as of October 1st, the decision to reschedule has been postponed.

Critics say it’s likely this will only delay rather than reverse the agency’s decision, so it’s important to understand why the DEA’s announcement caused such backlash and what the pending rescheduling would mean for the future of kratom. While the classification of kratom as a Schedule 1 substance would clearly have an immediate impact on the growing number of people who use kratom to treat addiction, perhaps even more important is that the decision would throw a serious wrench into long-term research into kratom’s potential to treat addiction.

Circumventing Public Input Not Okay, Senators Say

When the DEA announced on August 31 they would pursue emergency Schedule 1 status for kratom (which would classify the herbal supplement as a highly dangerous substance with no medical value and legally place it alongside substances like bath salts and heroin), agency officials wrote in a notice of intent that the recent upswing in kratom use warranted quick movement on their part that circumvented the normal procedures of input from the public and scientific community.

The sudden decision to push the rescheduling without consulting public opinion is what, in particular, three US senators took issue with in a two-page letter they sent to the agency on September 30, the day before the emergency rescheduling would go into effect. In the letter, Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Ron Wyden (D-OR) wrote that, while they understood that public safety sometimes called for quick decisions, this was not the case for kratom. They urged the DEA that “additional time for the scientific community, public health officials, and other members of the public to comment is warranted and may prove to be in the interest of public health and safety.”

The letter, which cited scientific research from Columbia University and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center about kratom’s safety and benefits, also spoke to the irresponsible nature of banning a potentially useful plant and putting responsible users at risk of incarceration: “Since 1980, our federal prison population has exploded by nearly 800 percent. This increase is a result of draconian drug policies that continue to place nonviolent drug offenders behind bars. We should not, in haste and without adequate opportunity for comment and analysis, place substances in categories that may be inconsistent with their medical value and potential for abuse.”

While it’s true that the risks of using kratom are still not well understood—as an opioid, some say there is a risk of addiction—studies like the ones cited in the senators’ letter suggest that kratom could be a powerful addiction treatment in comparison to other opiates like methadone (which, compared to kratom, is well-known to be addictive). By not opening up a public dialogue about its medicinal potential, the agency sent a clear message that the public’s opinion didn’t matter.

Rescheduling Would Delay Scientific Research

The DEA’s attempt to slip kratom into Schedule 1 status without public input is certainly disheartening, but even more troubling is the effect the rescheduling would have on important research into kratom’s medical uses and safety.

Classifying kratom as a Schedule 1 substance (rather than a less stringent classification) is particularly frustrating because the status would make it incredibly difficult for researchers to obtain licenses for current and future studies. As one kratom researcher from the University of Mississippi put it in an article for Scientific American, “I don’t oppose it being regulated, I just oppose Schedule I. That’s where the frustration comes in, realizing you have to shut everything down because we don’t have a Schedule I license.”

According to the August 31 statement from the DEA, “kratom has a high potential for abuse, has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and has a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision.”

But the research suggests otherwise. While kratom is considered an opioid itself, it behaves very differently from substances like heroin, fentanyl, and methadone. It doesn’t have the same risk of respiratory depression that hard opiates do, meaning that the risk of overdosing on kratom is drastically less than many legally prescribed painkillers. This makes kratom a potentially powerful harm reduction tool for treating chronic pain and addiction, which is becoming more and more important in a time when prescription opioid abuse and resulting deaths are reaching epidemic proportions. The studies into mice behavior also show that mice don’t take pleasure from taking kratom, an important indicator that it’s not addictive.

In the same Aug 31 statement, the DEA also wrote that “because the identity, purity levels, and quantity of these [kratom] substances are uncertain and inconsistent, they pose significant adverse health risks to users.” But if the War on Drugs has told us anything, it’s that criminalizing substances like kratom doesn’t prevent people from taking them, nor does it make for a safer, higher-quality product. By taking it out of the hands of legal companies subject to regulation, the Schedule 1 status would only incentivize the illegal sale of kratom, which, as has been seen with MDMA, would more than likely compromise the quality and safety of the substance.

So it seems like the agency’s decision is in contradiction with what it aims to do—protect public health from possible harm associated with substances. By classifying kratom a Schedule 1 status, the government would effectively put a halt to research that could give us insight into how to safely and effectively administer the potential addiction treatment and could also open up illegal markets that would compromise the quality of the product.

Cognitive Dissonance in Drug Policy

We are at very interesting crossroads when it comes to drug policy in the United States, as we realize the policies of the past have failed and we struggle to find a new direction. Aside from the recent developments with kratom, there have been many positive advancements in the realms of marijuana legalization, psychedelic research, and popular understanding that the War on Drugs and zero-tolerance policies have been a failure.

At the same time, there’s growing awareness that prescription drugs are one of our greatest threats because they can fuel heroin abuse and lead to overdose deaths, like last month’s crisis in Ohio in which seven people overdosed from heroin and fentanyl in a single day. As potential plant-based addiction treatments like kratom, ibogaine, and ayahuasca are persecuted, it’s a startling fact that the majority of drug overdose deaths in the United States involve legal prescription drugs. So it doesn’t make much sense that emergency scheduling of kratom would make the public any safer.

Until this recent action, kratom’s legal status was handled on a state by state basis. States that have banned kratom—six in total— include Vermont, where the opiate addiction epidemic became such a problem that the state was investigating a pilot ibogaine study, and in Alabama, where the ban was followed by an increase in opiate deaths.

For those well-versed in the history of psychedelic scheduling—like the recent battle over the potential PTSD treatment MDMA—kratom’s story is a familiar one. It’s clear that classifying kratom as a Schedule 1 substance would only do a disservice to the public rather than protect it. In the face of a growing opiate addiction epidemic, we need new options outside of traditional treatments, and slowing kratom research to a bureaucratic trickle would be a serious setback to the addiction research we so clearly need.