Sometimes, solutions to even the most entrenched public health crises are right in front of our eyes, growing naturally from Mother Earth.
Richard Smith* struggled with an opiate painkiller addiction for four years before he found a way out through something called kratom.
“It works amazingly well,” Smith said. “I’m surprised it isn’t being prescribed as a treatment by doctors.”
Kratom comes from a tree, Mitragyna speciosa, that grows in Southeast Asia. The leaves have long been taken as medicine by people living in its native jungles, but the remedy is now growing in popularity around the world. Leaves can be chewed fresh, or dried and consumed in powder, tea or bar form. In small doses, it can have stimulative effects, but in larger quantities it acts as a sedative.
Kratom has been used as an aphrodisiac, painkiller, appetite suppressant and for diarrhea relief. Its most promising effect, however, is in weaning people off heroin and morphine addiction using chemicals that stimulate opiate receptors, reducing the brain’s cravings for the genuine article.
Smith got hooked on painkillers after undergoing surgery for an injury he suffered in the military.
“I was prescribed the medication by a doctor for three or four years,” he said. He tried quitting cold turkey, and by replacing the opiates with alcohol, but nothing worked.
That’s when he heard about kratom. The idea appealed to him more than checking into rehab to go onto methadone or suboxone, so he purchased some from a local natural products store and gave it a shot. He took the kratom for two or three months and was able to leave behind his addiction completely, without experiencing the crippling symptoms that usually accompany opiate withdrawal.
“I was able to go to work, take care of my family,” Smith said.
Awareness of the kratom’s therapeutic properties seems to be growing. “If you want to treat depression, if you want to treat opioid pain, if you want to treat sleepiness, this [compound] really puts it all together,” Edward Boyer, a professor of emergency medicine and director of medical toxicology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, said to Scientific American.
Side effects are minimal, including nausea, itching, sweating, dry mouth and increased urination. Kratom can be addictive, according to reports, but a 2011 study by the International Drug Policy Consortium and Transnational Institute found that withdrawal symptoms were weak and nearly inconsequential compared to the suffering of people trying to quit opiates or amphetamines.
“I’ve heard there are withdrawal symptoms from kratom itself, but I didn’t experience that,” Smith said. “At least in comparison in trying to wean myself off narcotics for pain.”
The public profile of kratom is thriving, at least online. Reddit has over 5,000 members on its kratom forum that discuss its effects and how to acquire it.
Vocativ described it as the “sleeper-hit wonder drug that’s as schizophrenic as the Internet that spawned it” and called for 2015 to be “the year of kratom.” The site surveyed internet reviews and concluded that the substance could cause you to have the best or worst sex of your life, would make you feel amazing or terrible, gain superhuman strength or suffer crippling weakness, and might make you poop weird.
Another kratom enthusiast, Brandon Bird, who buys in bulk from Indonesia and resells it under the name Snake Oil Peddlers, spoke to Reset last year about how kratom helps him manage his PTSD and allowed him to quit taking prescription painkillers.
It hasn’t gotten on the bad side of America’s drug warriors yet, so kratom remains unregulated and unlisted under the Controlled Substances Act, although the Drug Enforcement Agency has ominously and inaccurately claimed that it has “no legitimate medical use.”
However, its active chemicals, mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine, were banned in Indiana in 2012, and Tennessee followed suit in 2013.
Restrictions in other states and localities are under consideration. Lawmakers in Arizona tried to ban kratom last year, but the bill failed to pass. And Palm Beach County in Florida mulled over forcing vendors to post signs warning of its addictive properties, but recently decided against moving forward with the measure.
Internationally, kratom is illegal in Thailand, Australia, Myanmar and Malaysia, although Thailand has reportedly been considering dropping the ban.
When governments think about banning a substance or smearing it as a drug, it’s important to consider the evidence and harm reduction potential. With opiate addiction a growing problem in the United States, kratom is one therapy that can help people get their lives back on track. “Painkillers are an addiction that a lot of people are dealing with,” Smith said. “I think it’s important that people are aware that this is an option. It worked for me.”
Per request, one or more names have been changed for this article to protect the source’s identity.