On the same day that U.S. President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 111 federal inmates who were mostly in prison for low-level drug crimes—a move some observers interpreted as symbolic of his fight to end the War on Drugs—his administration, in fact, announced its intention to expand the war.
The Drug Enforcement Agency said on Aug. 31 that it will temporarily categorize the popular plant kratom as a “Schedule I” drug, alongside LSD, heroin, and marijuana, starting Sept. 30; this means it has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” But the move has drug policy advocates crying foul, saying it could jeopardize the future of a plant that’s shown early promise in providing pain relief and combating opioid addiction.
“We’re at a place in drug policy where politicians are talking about ending criminalization and moving towards a health-based approach, but then at the same time, when there’s a drug that they haven’t heard of before, the immediate reaction is to prohibit it first and ask questions later,” Jag Davies, director of communications strategy for nonprofit group the Drug Policy Alliance, told me.
What is kratom?
The kratom tree, a relative of the coffee plant, is native to Southeast Asia. Local populations traditionally chewed leaves from the tree to combat fatigue, much like how indigenous Americans in the mountains of South America use coca leaves. Taking large doses, either in powder or tea form, have a narcotic effect “that resemble drugs such as opiates,” according to a 2015 study published by the journal BioMed Research International.
There’s another side to the plant, though. Multiple studies suggest that people in western countries are increasingly using kratom to wean themselves off of opioid addiction, with many self-reported and anecdotal success stories. However, more research needs to be conducted. One case study from 2008 noted that a 43-year-old man was successfully taking small doses of kratom to combat his addiction, until it apparently reacted with another medication he was taking, causing him to have a seizure.
But labeling kratom—even temporarily—as a substance with no medical benefits puts research of the plant at risk, according to drug policy advocates like Davies, who fear the designation will freeze research instead of expanding it. Given that the DEA refuses to acknowledge marijuana’s medical benefits despite evidence to the contrary, this concern is even more acute. The feeling goes that if cannabis—a plant with that’s been legalized for medical reasons in 25 state and D.C.—cannot pass muster, this newer, less understood plant doesn’t stand a chance. Amid a historic opiate epidemic, a potential solution to this crisis is in the process of being shut out.
In a video published on Sept. 2 by pro-kratom YouTube channel Soldiers for Change, a veteran describes how he stopped taking addictive prescription medication for his migraine headaches after he started brewing kratom tea at home.
“You’re taking away a right that I fought for,” the veteran says in the video. “When I did my tour in Iraq, I fought for my right to be in America and be able to help myself, to cure myself. I’m not talking about snorting cocaine, shooting up heroin—I’m not even talking about puffing a joint. I’m talking about brewing some tea leaves, having a sip, and feeling better.”