The Intriguing Therapeutic Potential of a Little-Known Plant From Southeast Asia
Kratom — a supplement made from the leaves of an evergreen tree indigenous to Thailand and Southeast Asia — made headlines late last summer. In August, the Drug Enforcement Agency announced its plan to temporarily ban the substance by classifying it “as illegal as heroin,” via an emergency scheduling decision that’s typically reserved for public-health crises. (Earlier in the summer, the CDC released a report calling the plant “an emerging public-health threat,” noting a surge in a kratom-related calls to poison-control centers.) By October, however — following weeks of noisy outcry — the DEA withdrew that plan, and instead invited the public to submit their testimonies about using the product.
By the December 1 deadline, more than 22,000 people had responded, mostly telling stories about how they relied on the plant for easing their anxiety, PTSD, chronic pain, or struggles with opioid withdrawal, and how restricting access to it would destroy their lives. The “kratom community” of activists, vendors, and consumers exists largely online, and the DEA’s highly visible call for comment brought this passionate group out of the shadows, creating a public archive of anecdotes about the plant’s effectiveness for the very first time. For now, kratom remains legal in the U.S. (with the exception of a handful of states), and it seems that these stories about kratom may have helped rescue it from a scheduling decision that would have restricted access.
At least for the time being. No one knows what will happen with kratom under the Trump administration, but researchers like Jack Henningfield, a Johns Hopkins behavioral-psychology professor and health policy and abuse-liability researcher, echo consumers’ concerns about banning the plant. “If you make it Schedule 1, you kill research and create a black market, and that’s scary,” said Henningfield, who helped pull together a comprehensive report on kratom for the DEA’s scheduling decision. While preparing that review, his team was unable to find evidence of a single death where kratom use alone was the clear cause; instead, the trouble often seems to come when kratom is used in addition to other substances, as a case study in the journal Addiction described in 2008. Henningfield’s team also found no evidence of child poisoning. (The CDC, for its part, reports some serious potential side effects, including psychosis and seizures.)