Why Is The DEA Banning Kratom, A Harmless Plant?

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by Troy Farah

on September 29, 2016

When Tina Gunderson heard about the Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) emergency Schedule I ban on kratom, which goes into effect September 30, she was devastated. Like many Americans, Gunderson uses kratom (Mitragyna speciosa), a species of tropical evergreen tree related to coffee plants, to treat chronic pain naturally. Kratom is also regularly used as an over-the-counter method to wean off opioid addiction.

The DEA has decided since at least 2013 that they can see no “legitimate medical use” for kratom in the US, despite decades of research indicating the Southeast Asian plant is useful for many conditions ranging from diarrhea to muscle aches. It’s also relatively harmless, even for hardcore users. On August 30, the DEA formally announced its intent to schedule kratom alongside heroin and “bath salts” (MDPV), citing “an imminent hazard to public safety.”

Kratom leaves are dried and sold as medicine. Enthusiasts say the natural medicine is as strong as morphine at killing pain without the toxic side effects of chemical painkillers. Via" Irina Sokolovskaya

Kratom leaves are dried and sold as medicine. Enthusiasts say the natural medicine is as strong as morphine at killing pain without the toxic side effects of chemical painkillers. Via” Irina Sokolovskaya

Gunderson is now worried she will soon become a felon for the way she treats her many chronic conditions, including a rare, incurable autoimmune syndrome known as Behçet’s disease. Thousands like her now face similar punishment.

“Can you picture grandmas, mothers, fathers, grandfathers, veterans, doctors, nurses, teachers … sitting in jail because they chose a natural plant to treat their medical condition?” Gunderson asks. But she remains optimistic: “I’ve learned since the ban was announced the kratom community is a lot larger than I ever thought it would be.”

Gunderson, from Minnesota, was one of the more than 136,000 people who signed a petition begging the White House to intervene on the ban. With only a month’s notice, and without even a window for public comment, the ban has left many kratom users and advocates scrambling. Outcry has been swift, spurring marches across the nation and even drawing bipartisan support from Congress: Rep. Mark Pocan (D–Wisconsin) and Rep. Matt Salmon (R–Arizona) coauthored a “Dear Colleague” letter aimed at preventing “the DEA from regulatory overreach.”

By Monday, September 26th, another 49 politicians, both Republicans and Democrats, had signed on in support of the letter.

Which isn’t to say the kratom ban has caught many people by surprise. For more than two years, the Food and Drug Administration has been ordering customs to seize large shipments of the supplement worth as much as $400,000. Six states (Alabama, Wisconsin, Vermont, Tennessee, Indiana and Arkansas) have already outlawed kratom. Given the DEA’s longstanding stance against kratom, many feel like it was only a matter of time before the agency took action.

Experts say banning the plant kratom will do more harm than good. Via: sarintra chimphoolsuk

Experts say banning the plant kratom will do more harm than good. Via: sarintra chimphoolsuk

What is surprising, however, are the circumstances in which the ban has been put into place.

A staffer speaking on behalf of Rep. Pocan’s office told Reset.Me that the ban is “clearly an overreaction” by the DEA, a decision rooted in politics and not fact.

“We don’t have any access into their deliberations on why they decided to make this move. They signaled that there’s no medical use for kratom…but the problem is that the NIH, the National Institutes of Health, and major universities like the University of Massachusetts and the University of Mississippi were doing federally funded research on this substance,” the staffer said. “So to say that there was no medical use for this is kind of untrue.”

The staffer added: “There is obviously a need for some regulation in this realm … but that jumping to the conclusion that it’s a Schedule 1 and that all research should be stopped when it has shown some promising medicinal purposes is kind of ridiculous.”

Had the DEA instead chosen less severe classification—say Schedule II or III or even V—those universities wouldn’t risk losing their funding overnight. Ironically, banning a substance for having no “accepted medical use” also prevents research from discovering that potential. It turns out the reason the agency can’t choose a lower schedule with an emergency ban actually has to do with how the Controlled Substances Act is written, according to Slate. Perhaps this is more evidence that the DEA should not have this kind of authority in the first place.

“This is an opportunity to rethink the drug classification system and to reevaluate the DEA’s role in decision making about drug classification,” Jag Davies, director of communications strategy at the Drug Policy Alliance, told Motherboard. “The responsibility for deciding drug classifications should be removed from the DEA and transferred to a health or science agency.”

The DEA’s decision is based on a spike in poison control calls related to kratom—26 in 2010 jumped to 263 in 2015—but in 2013 alone, there were “11,000 calls related to pens and ink, 15,000 for air fresheners, 19,000 for deodorant, 20,000 for hand sanitizers and 40,000 for bleach,” according to the Washington Post. It would seem that kratom is safer than many of the items in a typical bathroom. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention claims 78 Americans die every day from opioid overdoses, an epidemic kratom might actually be able to mitigate.

What about those 15 kratom-related deaths between 2014 and 2016 the DEA cites in their report? Not a single one of those deaths involved kratom alone, and according to an independent toxicology test conducted by the American Kratom Association, “This sworn affidavit support[s] what we already know—that there are no direct deaths tied to kratom and that the plant itself has little to no toxicity.”

Dan Harmon, creator of the NBC comedy series Community, summed it up succinctly in this tweet: “Just ‘researched’ Kratom for 15 minutes. Which doesn’t make me an expert. But it does make me seemingly more informed than the DEA.”

So if the ban is not based on much science or addressing actual hazards to public safety, what’s the real motivation behind it? Many presume major pharmaceutical companies are somehow behind the deal—and their fears may not be far off.

Consider that TRV130, a drug branded as Oliceridine by pharmaceutical developer Trevena, is currently in phase three testing for the intravenous treatment of moderate-to-severe acute pain.

TRV130 shares something in common with kratom: neither drug engages the βarrestin 2 pathway. Morphine, however, does—and this mechanism is what causes side effects in opioids, such as respiratory depression (slow breathing), analgesic tolerance, and constipation.

In other words, the DEA is banning an opioid-like substance, kratom, which has far less side effects than common opioids, while another, highly similar drug has been granted Breakthrough Therapy designation by the FDA, giving it expedited development and review.

Trevena isn’t the only organization trying to make drugs similar to kratom. In the last decade, scientists have developed MGM-9, MGM15, and MGM-16, synthetic versions of kratom’s main ingredients. In the race to find safe, non-addictive pain killer alternatives, the federal government seems to want to cut out the competition.

In other words: You can’t patent a plant—but you can ban it.

Also consider that DEA Acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg was once partner at Hogan Lovells (formerly Hogan & Hartson), one of the largest lobbying firms in the nation—and one that deals heavily with pharmaceutical regulatory law. While his tenure there did not involve pharmaceutical law, but rather white collar criminal defense, Rosenberg did make an important connection with Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who was partner at Hogan Lovells during the same period.

Guess who appointed Rosenberg head of DEA? That’s right—Ms. Lynch. The corruption stems even deeper if you look at why Rosenberg took the job in the first place. In 2015, DEA head Michele Leonhart stepped down when it was revealed DEA agents were participating in drug cartel–funded sex parties with prostitutes. Rosenberg himself attracted controversy last year, with many demanding his resignation, after he described medical marijuana as a “joke.”

The DEA’s Public Affairs department refused a request for comment.

To say there is not the possibility of some sort of conflict of interest in this kratom ban—especially given the DEA’s flat-out refusal to hear public comments on the issue—would be ignoring some very troubling facts. Indeed, the kratom ban is about much more than just kratom.

The FDA and DEA are trying to take this miraculous plant away from all of us. Please join us in the effort to help try and save kratom.

Please do the following 2 steps:

1) Directly message your concerns to the Attorney General by clicking the link below.  Please make sure that you select “Message to Attorney General” in the general topic section.  

https://www.justice.gov/doj/webform/your-message-department-justice

2) Please sign the petition link below:

https://petitions.whitehouse.gov//petition/please-do-not-make-kratom-schedule-i-substance

Troy Farah is a journalist and photographer from Phoenix, Arizona. He’s written for VICE, LA Weekly, Phoenix New Times, and others. His website is troyfarah.com, and you can find him on Twitter.