Banning a Promising Remedy for Opioid Addiction Is a Bad Idea

March 13, 2017

Forty-five years after the medication war was declared by President Richard Nixon, the United States results the world in both recreational medication usage and incarceration rates. Heroin abuse rates continue to soar. Drug-related violence in our nation’s cities and cartel wars in Latin America exact horrific tolls.

And then there is the ever-present bully on the block, prescription drug abuse. More than two million Americans have become hooked on the pharmaceuticals that physicians prescribe to ease their pain. Opioids–both legal and illicit–killed a mind-boggling 28,647 people in 2014.



Richard Schiffman is a biographer, poet, and a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Scientific American , the New York Times , NPR, and the Washington Post .

But not to frets: The Drug Enforcement Administration is on the case.” To avoid an imminent hazard to public safety ,” the agency said in a press release, it will be adding kratom, a medicinal herb that has been used safely in Southeast Asia for centuries, to its list of Schedule 1 substances, placing the popular botanical in a class with murderers like heroin and cocaine at the end of September.

Why ban the mild-mannered tree leaf? Well, because the DEA claims it’s an opioid with” no currently accepted medical employ .” Wrong on both counts.

Pharmacologists label kratom as an alkaloid , not an opioid. True, kratom induces certain opioid receptors in the brain. But then, so does drinking a glass of wine, or operating a marathon.

Kratom is less habit-forming than classic opioids like heroin and the pharmaceutical oxycodone, and its impact on the brain is weaker and more selective. Nevertheless, the herb’s ability to bind loosely with certain opioid receptors makes it a godsend for addicts who want to kick their habits. Kratom is currently helping wean thousands of Americans off illegal drugs and prescription pain relievers, without creating any dangerous long term dependency.

The powdered foliages are readily available from ratings of herb vendors on the Internet. Since the ban was announced in late August, websites and social media have explosion with accounts from people who credit the plant with saving them from lives of craving and chronic pain.

Take, for example, Virginia native Susan Ash. She was using Suboxone to help cope with severe joint pain resulting from Lyme disease.” My life was ruled by the clock–all I could think was,’ when do I take my next dosage, ‘” Ash says. Then person suggested she try kratom to assistance kick her addiction to the prescription pain killer.” In two weeks day, I went from being a bed-bound invalid to a productive member of society again.

She founded the American Kratom Society in 2014 to help keep this herbal lifeline legal. Ash says that tens of thousands of people employ kratom not only to help with chronic pain, but also to alleviate depression and to provide relief from PTSD. She strongly disputes that users like herself are simply exchanging one addictive medication for another.

” I have never had a craving for kratom ,” Ash says.” You can’t compare it to even the mildest opiate. It simply won’t get you high .”

What it might do, users tell, is somewhat tweak your mood. The foliages of the Mitragyna speciosa tree, a biological relative of coffee, have been chewed for centuries in Southeast Asia by farmers to increase their stamina. Kratom is gently euphoric and also relaxing–think coffee without the jitters and sleeplessness. It is hard to take toxic high levels of the herb, since larger dosages induce nausea and vomiting.

But does it offer medical benefits? Dr. Walter Prozialeck, chair of the Department of Pharmacology at Midwestern University in Downers Grove, Illinois, who conducted a survey of the scant medical literature on kratom, says the herb did indeed help to relieve pain in animal studies.

While no clinical trials had still not been does so with humans, addicts in Thailand and Malaysia have utilized kratom for decades to detox from heroin and alcohol. It was so successful in getting people off opium that Thailand banned kratom in 1943 to stem the loss of the opium taxes that funded the government.

Nobody knows how many are use kratom here in the US.” There are so many testimonials out there[ from kratom users] on the Internet that I personally observed quite compelling ,” Dr. Prozialeck says.” This merits further study.

But examined has proven difficult. Dr. Edward Boyer, director of toxicology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, says that when he tried to conduct research on kratom, potential partners told him,” we dont fund medications of abuse .” Drug companies have shown sporadic interest in isolating the active constituents in kratom since the 1960 s, he says, but no pharmaceuticals have yet been developed from them.

Given the current opioid crisis, Boyer hopes researchers will dive deeper into the plant’s pharmacology.” Wouldn’t it be great to have an analgesic that they are able to alleviate your pain and not kill you ?” Boyer notes that kratom is free from the potentially deadly side effects like respiratory failure that have bedeviled prescription opioids.

However, medication companies have shown little interest in a plant remedy that cannot be patented. While some of kratom’s active ingredients have indeed been patented by researchers who hope one day to marketplace them to pharmaceutical firms, Boyer used to say these compounds have failed to exhibit as powerful pain-killing effects as the whole plant.” There is something in there that we don’t yet understand ,” he added.

And if the DEA’s ban goes into effect, we may never understand kratom’s remarkable potential. That’s because the federal action would have a chilling impact on research, according to Boyer.

The DEA claims that kratom is addictive. Since you can get hooked on most anything even coffee or chocolate, as Dr. Boyer pointed out, this claim is both comparatively meaningless and also hard to conflict. Users report that withdrawal symptoms from kratom are comparable to giving up coffee–a few days of irritability, perhaps a headache.

In issuing its scheduling notice, the DEA said that the Centers for Disease Control received 660 complaints about kratom( including the reporting of constipation and vomiting) between 2010 to 2015, out of 3 million calls annually reporting adverse reactions to assorted other foods and drugs. To put this number in perspective, the National Poison Data System registers more than 3,700 calls about caffeine annually, every year leading to multiple overdoses that result in death.

” This hardly constitutes a public health emergency ,” says Susan Ash.” They definitely get more calls about energy beverages .”

In banning kratom, the DEA dispensed with the usual public commentary period. Proponents, however, refuse to be stillness. They plan to challenge the DEA’s action in tribunal and are marching on the White House on September 13. A petition recommending President obama to reverse the ban has outstripped the 100,000 signature mark which, by law, requires a personal replies from the president.

” There is a cheap plant out there that’s helping people getting off opioids ,” Ash says,” and now so many are going to be forced back into active craving, or made a prey to black market drug dealers .”

What if, instead of turning tens of thousands of law-abiding Americans into either addicts or offenders, the DEA listened to those who have utilized kratom successfully to kick their cravings and manage chronic pain? Instead of banning the herb, why not draft some sensible regulation to establish dosage and labelling requirements and to protect consumers from adulterated product?

And while they are at it, America’s drug agency should sponsor some long overdue scientific research into a substance that may be the best thing going to combat our runaway epidemic of opioid addiction.

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