At low doses, it's a stimulant. At high doses, it's an natural opioid-like painkiller. Why would states rush to ban an opioid replacement that's hundreds of times less deadly than synthetic opioids? The void left by cannabis on the list on banned substances is quickly being filled with a new banned plant, kratom. Kratom is one of the few plants, like cannabis, that has inspired its own advocacy movements to keep it legal.
The mysterious traditional plant with origins in Thailand and Malaysia is still new in the United States. In 1943, the Thai government banned kratom, fearing it could destroy the opium tax revenue that the nation depended on. Taking cue from Thailand, the United States is poised to do basically the same thing. America's lucrative big pharma opioid powerhouse could take a beating if kratom use gets out of control.
Kratom comes in several varieties—red vein, green vein, and white vein. With popular branded capsules with names like Krave already circling abundantly in the United States, it's inevitably led some states to ban the plant. Six states so far have banned Kratom by putting its active ingredients on the controlled substance list.
Alabama became the sixth state to effectively ban kratom. Arkansas, Tennessee, Vermont, and Wisconsin have banned the active ingredients in kratom, and Illinois and Louisiana have banned the substance altogether. Alabama District Attorneys' Association Deputy Director Barry Matson said most counties are giving retailers 24 to 48 hours to dump any remaining product.
"The last six months in Alabama is when it's really erupted," Matson told Alabama.com.
According to the American Kratom Association, anti-kratom legislation is being drafted as we speak in Florida, Georgia, and Kentucky. Senator Arthur Orr (D-Decatur) sponsored Alabama's bill which places the active ingredients, mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine, as Schedule I.
Kratom, in its natural form, is harmless. Mitragynine binds to opioid receptors in the brain, the same receptors that react to morphine, heroin, and oxycodone. While kratom is much less dangerous than painkillers or heroin, it does share some “qualities” like withdrawal symptoms and the habit-forming nature that all opioids possess. Mitragynine doesn't bind as strongly as synthetic opioids, but the same idea applies.
Extraction artists have made concentrations of the plant, up to 50 times stronger than the plant's natural form. A 50x extract in reality is probably 7 or 8 times the strength of the plant. This creates a problem.
There's really only one redeeming quality of extracts this strong — and that's a gateway drug — a gateway to escape opioid addiction. This could be useful to a pill popper or a heroin addict, but there's really no reason to start a new addiction.
"It's not as sweet, but it is relaxing, calming," one user, and former addict, told VICE.
Kratom could become a gateway drug out of opioid addiction, as its ingredients are simply not strong enough to stop breathing—which is what kills most opioid addicts that overdose.
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"Direct kratom overdoses from the life-threatening respiratory depression that usually occurs with opioid overdoses have not been reported," said Oliver Grundmann, clinical associate professor of medicinal chemistry at the University of Florida. Grundmann and his associates studied the effects of kratom in a 2016 study.