In the jungles of Southeast Asia flourishes a tree whose leaves provide powerful alkaloids with some incredible, seemingly contradictory properties. Known as ‘kratom’ or ‘biak,’ these leaves are a traditional medicine dating back to ancient times, but as their popularity soars across the globe they are increasingly seeped in controversy. Kratom is legal by default in the U.S. (it isn’t classified or listed as a controlled substance) and is sold, usually crushed and dried, in general stores and special “kratom bars” scattered across the country. It produces a euphoric “high” and it’s said to mitigate the effects of opiate withdrawal. However, some warn that it can be addictive. Others call it life-saving.
Brandon Bird from Paradise Valley, Arizona says kratom is what saved him from a deep spiral of addiction to prescription drugs. He says it also helps him manage his PTSD, with which he was diagnosed three years ago, as well as chronic pain from when he broke his back during a bodybuilding competition.
Bird, a 29-year-old blogger for a nonprofit in Scottsdale, Arizona, agreed to meet me at a coffee shop in downtown Phoenix. He told me that with his 2010 back injury came the return of an opiate addiction he’d previously struggled with as a teenager. After more than five years clean, Bird relapsed because of the painkillers he was prescribed — a period he describes as “pretty dark.” After getting clean again, he wanted to remove the rest of the prescription drugs in his life — eight in total.
“I was on three different things for anxiety, I was on a seizure medication, I was on three different medications for pain, I was on something to sleep,” Bird told me. “All in all, I was heavily medicated.”
Bird discovered kratom by accident while shopping. Intrigued, he went home, did some research, and found that many of kratom’s benefits related to his personal health issues. In early 2013, he began to medicate with powdered kratom, and within months, he’d thrown away every medication he was on, a level of freedom he said he hadn’t experienced in years.
Filed in the Rubiaceae family, kratom (Mitragyna speciosa) is related to coffee and Psychotria viridis, an Amazonian shrub that is used as a source of dimethyltryptamine (DMT) in ayahuasca preparations. Depending on the strain or dosage, kratom can give a stimulating effect similar to caffeine, or a sedative, pain-relieving feeling not unlike opium.
Kratom reportedly has a wide-range of medicinal applications, including as an antidiarrheal, as an aphrodisiac, as a powerful analgesic (or painkiller), and as an appetite depressant. But most notably, because of its classification as a μ-opioid receptor agonist, kratom is useful in treating morphine and heroin addiction, and is considered a natural alternative to methadone.
Bird isn’t alone — I also spoke to some members of the popular website Reddit, which boasts 4,000 subscribers on its ‘/r/kratom’ forum. One member from New York City, who wished to remain anonymous, told me he uses kratom in various ways, for example, to help recover from a cold or after a sports injury when Advil doesn’t cut it.
“The last way I use it is recreationally,” the Reddit user said. “It’s the most subtly calming and lucid drug I have experienced. It feels very organic and sincere… it really is benign feeling at the same time. I cannot envision a single person having a bad experience on it because it is so gentle, but at the same time it’s been incredibly non-addictive for me. I’ll do it one night or a couple nights in a row, but then won’t think about it for weeks or months.”
Regardless of these promising therapeutic anecdotes, the drug is not yet widely known. When it does pop up in the mainstream, it attracts hyperbolic media labels comparing it to everything from cocaine to “bath salts” to heroin. It’s the same guilt by association game that resulted in cannabis, psilocybin, and DMT being outlawed. However, kratom is far from a new or synthetic drug — and for many people, like Bird, it has provided a second chance at life.
“At a certain point, I just lost faith in that system,” Bird says of the pharmaceutical industry. “It became all of my money, it became more detrimental to my health than beneficial, it caused more addiction problems. In every way conceivable, it went awry. So being able to take back that power and find something that actually worked better than all of those expensive, dangerous pharmaceuticals, it was amazing. It was one of the better things that’s happened to me in my life.”
Showing me the giant bags of kratom he imports from Indonesia and across the Asian-Pacific, Bird tells me he uses very specific kratom strains to manage his conditions — mostly geared toward analgesia and anti-anxiety. When I ask if he’s ever experienced side effects, he says everything, including food, has a side effect.
“As far as normal, nominal use, if you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing with it, I haven’t experienced any side effects,” Bird said. “Actually, one of my favorite things about it [is] it’s self-limiting. Unlike something like a Percodan, where you just take it ad infinitum and you feel better the more you take — that encourages abuse — with kratom, there’s a threshold you don’t want to cross because you start to feel physically ill. It’s hard to cross that level. You have to be intending to abuse it.”
Bird adds, “If you know where that line is, you basically got your medicinal dose [sic]. Because I know what strain I’m supposed to be taking, what doses I’m supposed to be at, no, I don’t really experience any side effects at all.”
Seeing how kratom changed his life, Bird wanted to help others, so he started buying kratom in bulk and selling it under the name Snake Oil Peddlers. Formerly a brewing company, (hence the tongue-in-cheek name), Bird says he sells around twenty different strains for a variety of conditions. While his customer base is still small, it’s been steadily growing.
“I decided to do something with my huge surplus of product and get it to other people who want it for the same reasons,” Bird says. “It started with personal friends, people I knew who had been through a lot of the same stuff as me, a lot of the same issues. From there it branched out and I found more and more people who are looking for something exactly like it.”
He adds, “Every person that I’ve dealt with, that has tried kratom, that has started using it, has seen massive effects in their life that benefit them in ways that previously they had no way of getting.”
But legally available kratom may someday become a thing of the past. Due to worries over its potentially addictive properties earlier this year, Arizona tried to pass a bill outlawing kratom. The bill didn’t go through, but could be a sign of things to come.
What will people like Bird do if suddenly their medication equals handcuffs? Bird says he’ll continue trying to find naturopathic solutions to the problems pharmaceutical companies claim they can cure.
“I am so worried about it becoming another marijuana, something that becomes vilified completely due to misunderstanding,” Bird says. “For me, it’s absolutely essential. I don’t know what I would do without it…It would be heartbreaking to see that go away, because it’s just not necessary. There would be literally no reason but fear. There’s no actual good, technical, health, or legal reason for it to go that direction.”
In most of the United States, kratom is available over-the-counter, but that is rapidly changing. Elmhurst, Illinois recently passed a law which punishes those who distribute the leaf with six months in jail, plus a $500 minimum fine. Labeling it a “synthetic drug,” Tennessee made possession or sale of kratom’s alkaloids, mitragynine and hydroxymitagynine a class A misdemeanor in 2013, following a similar ban in Indiana the year before.
In mid-July 2014, a woman in Boynton Beach, Florida, blamed the plant for her son’s suicide. Linda Mautner says her only child, Ian, jumped off an overpass because of his addiction to kratom. In response, Palm Beach County Commissioner Prescilla Taylor is considering an outright ban of the plant. Already, the drug is being compared to other gray-market substances such as ‘bath salts’ and ‘K2,’ while simultaneously being labeled “the legal form of heroin, with hallucinogenic effects like LSD,” which makes little sense.
Despite being indigenous to Thailand, where it has remained an integral part of Thai culture for centuries, kratom has been illegal in the region since 1943 under the Kratom Act. At the time, Thailand’s government was levying heavy taxes from opium vendors and users. When prices skyrocketed, many users switched to kratom to manage their withdrawal symptoms. Declining revenue and the 1942 Greater East Asia War pushed the government to make the tree illegal, crushing competition for opium.
Like all forms of prohibition, it failed to work.
Following World War II, the Kratom Act was hardly enforced. Kratom trees could be grown in moderation, their leaves openly chewed (the favored method of ingestion), until 1979, when kratom was included in the Thai Narcotics Act, alongside marijuana and psilocybin mushrooms. Because the trees are indigenous to the region, eradication efforts often involve burning down kratom trees, which destroys other plants and wildlife in the area’s delicate rainforest ecosystem.
All of this might appear to be an extreme response, given how kratom seems to have a low threshold for abuse. Side effects commonly include dry mouth, diuresis (excessive production of urine), constipation, loss of appetite and reductions in body weight. When used regularly, kratom can be slightly addictive, but according to a 2011 joint study by the International Drug Policy Consortium and Transnational Institute, withdrawal symptoms appear very weak and include mild joint pains, sweating and insomnia. The study’s author, Pascal Tanguay, wrote, “Recovering users who were dependent on heroin and yaba [a cocktail of methamphetamine and caffeine] compare their withdrawals from kratom as ‘annoying’ or ‘distracting’ rather than painful or debilitating.”
Furthermore, there has never been a single documented legal case of kratom overdose where kratom was the sole culprit. In all cases of death involving kratom, (there are only a handful in total), other, more dangerous drugs were invariably involved.
Proposed bans, which are sure to increase as more media outlets exaggerate kratom’s risks, are troubling not only for proponents of consciousness freedom, but also for the many people who consider kratom to be a life-saving medicine.