What the Reversed Kratom Ban Teaches Us About Drug Advocacy in America
Pay attention if you’re serious about reform.
Published on November 11, 2016

You may not be familiar with the drug kratom, but many Americans are. Kratom is known to relieve pain and anxiety, and has often been used to ease the challenges of getting off of more harmful drugs, namely opioids. The DEA was slated to ban kratom until late September, when an outpouring of public activism by kratom users led to an indefinite delay on such a ban.

Earlier this year, the DEA announced its intent to place kratom on the list of Schedule I drugs. This is the most restrictive category of banned substances that includes drugs like heroin and LSD. The DEA describes a Schedule I like so: “Schedule I drugs have a high potential for abuse and the potential to create severe psychological and/or physical dependence.” Kratom users have used the drug to help them kick their OxyContin habit. Despite being a far more addictive substance, OxyContin is a Schedule II drug. Advocates for kratom compare the drug’s addictive power to coffee. No deaths have been linked to the drug. (Sound familiar, MJ readers?)

Once kratom advocates informed members of Congress that the drug is valued by many people hoping to kick opioid addiction and that it is relatively harmless, some politicians thought of their constituents. Fifty-one lawmakers came together from across the aisle to oppose a kratom ban. One aspect of a proposed ban that stuck in the craw of politicians is that a Schedule I ban prohibits both use of a drug and federally funded research into its potential benefits. Prior scientific research had found that kratom blocks pain receptors and could be an effective tool in combating symptoms of withdrawal. Lawmakers across the country are realizing that in districts that struggle with opioid addiction (and there are many), a victory for kratom could be interpreted as a victory for the beleaguered working class. Backbreaking jobs with gaps in insurance often lead to painkilling abuse, which leads to addiction.

The kratom reversal came from Congressional activism born from grassroots movements. As citizens, we often view our duty to vote as the one-way street in which change is accomplished, but the kratom reversal was an instance in which activism moved lawmakers instead of lawmakers moving activists. Citizen agitation led to coverage from outlets like the Huffington Post and podcasts like Street Fight Radio (hosts Brett Payne and Brian Quimby first brought kratom to my attention). Journalistic research concluded that the Kratom ban was brought about in response to hundred of poison center calls about kratom, even though these calls rarely resulted in medical treatment, and never in serious aid. This signal boost put the issue on the Capitol doorstep. A White House petition created at the end of August garnered 145,000 signatures.

Often when we consider our potential as drug advocates, we look at our ballot. And this approach has worked. Marijuana is now legal in half of the country in one form or another. As we move forward, remember that your advocacy is not limited to the possibilities you are presented by your government. Though the kratom stay may prove only temporary, the tactics its advocates used are permanent. In kratom we can find a valuable lesson: If you want real, effective drug policies in this country, the struggle starts with you.

Brenden Gallagher
Brenden Gallagher works in television and writing in Los Angeles. He worked on Revenge, Heartbeat, and Famous in Love. His writing has appeared at Complex, VH1, and MERRY JANE. Follow him on Twitter @muddycreekU
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