The Drug Enforcement Administration is poised to add kratom to its list of Schedule I substances -- putting it in the same legal category as cocaine and heroin -- despite an outcry from advocates who say the drug has potential as an alternative to addictive opioid painkillers.
On Sept. 30, a bipartisan group of 51 congressmen was joined by a group of nine senators in opposing the President Barack Obama administration's decision to classify kratom among the most dangerous of drugs. Naming kratom as a Schedule I substance not only places severe penalties for those caught possessing and using the drug, it will also make it prohibitively difficult for scientists to research its benefits, the lawmakers said.
The senate's letter called the DEA's move "unprecedented," and urged the agency to reconsider, according to The Washington Post.
"Given the long reported history of Kratom use," the senators wrote, "coupled with the public’s sentiment that it is a safe alternative to prescription opioids, we believe using the regular review process would provide for a much-needed discussion among all stakeholders."
With its kratom decision, the DEA decided to forgo the "regular review process" the senators mentioned in their letter. That means the DEA plans to use emergency authority to classify the drug, bypassing regulations that normally require the agency to solicit public feedback before making a decision.
With 30,000 deaths attributed to heroin and opioid painkiller overdoses in 2014, scientists have been researching kratom as a safer alternative for managing pain, the Post reported.
Members of congress who think kratom shows promise warned in a letter to the DEA that classifying kratom as Schedule I "will put a halt on federally funded research and innovation surrounding the treatment of individuals suffering from opioid and other addictions — a significant public health threat."
Kratom is a tropical plant native to southeast Asia and has been used for centuries in traditional medicine. More recently, it has become popular in the U.S., where some people use it to treat chronic pain and others use it to help them through painful opioid withdrawals.
The plant is not an opioid but binds to opioid receptors the same way heroin and painkillers do, according to researchers at the University of Florida's College of Pharmacy, who published a study on the plant in 2015.
That's likely the reason it aids in mitigating the effects of withdrawal -- when a person becomes physically dependent on opioids, the receptors in their brain are accustomed to being flooded with alkaloids, which bind to the receptors. When an addict stops using opioids and the receptors are not flooded with those alkaloids, the brain and nervous system go haywire, manifesting with symptoms like severe depression, diarrhea, hot sweats, restless leg syndrome, and severe flu-like symptoms that can last for weeks depending on the severity and length of the opioid addiction.
Available data on kratom does "not indicate there is any public health reason" for placing the plant in Schedule I, according to Marc Swogger, a clinical psychologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center.
"The research indicates that this is a pretty mild substance," Swogger told the Post. "Criminalizing kratom use is insane to me."
While the DEA points to 14 deaths attributed to kratom over a three-year period, advocates for the drug have pointed out that legal substances like "Five Hour Energy" have been tied to the deaths of at least 13 people, according to U.S. News & World Report.
A DEA spokesman told U.S. News that the ban probably won't go into effect for at least another week as the agency completes the necessary paperwork to reschedule kratom.
"We have determined that it represents an imminent hazard, so we're not going to drag our feet very long," DEA spokesman Russ Baer told the magazine. "It's not a matter of if, it's just a matter of when."