Another blow to fighting opium addiction with the scheduling of Kratom

Creative Commons: Image by Uomo Vitruviano

Creative Commons: Image by Uomo Vitruviano

If history has taught us anything, it is that society likes to ban what it does not understand. You only need to look at the oppression of cannabis over the last century to see this, with laws only now beginning to ease up now that science has started investigating its effects in detail. Well, cannabis isn’t the only substance to attract the ire of the government, with US officials cracking down on kratom. A move many feel is unjust.

Kratom is a plant that is native to areas of South East Asia and has been used for centuries as a natural remedy for pain and a way to boost mood. The leaves of the kratom plant are either chewed or brewed into a tea, and until very recently, were obtainable across the United States without much problem. That has changed, though, as the DEA has rescheduled the drug to a Schedule I substance, putting it in a bracket with the likes of heroin and meth. The reasoning behind the move was a claim by the DEA that kratom poses a “high potential for abuse,” with 15 recorded kratom-related deaths occurring in the US over the last two years.

A lot of misconception about kratom’s use comes from the fact its active compounds interact with opioid receptors in the body. However, unlike other drugs that interact with these receptors – like heroin – kratom does not contain any opiates. This allows kratom to interact with the receptors without the same severity as opiate-containing drugs.

The mechanism behind kratom’s interaction with the body has led it to become a tool in the fight against opiate addiction, and as an alternative for those looking to stay away from certain painkillers. It is rarely used recreationally. The DEA’s move to make the substance illegal has cut off a large number of users suffering from chronic pain from an avenue of relief – all done with very little understanding of the substance.

Scientists believe there can be some risk in regular kratom use, but without a thorough investigation, it is hard to say if the risks outweigh the benefits. Deaths associated with Kratom usually involve other substances – as it has traditionally been used to break addiction. On the other hand, if it can break addiction it could save lives. The exact number of people using kratom in the US is not known; however, before the ban, it was easy to legally obtain online. In a survey carried out by Pain News Network surveyed over 6,000 users, 90% stated it was a very effective treatment for their pain.

One of the many scientists concerned with the ban is Christopher McCurdy, Adjunct Professor of Biomolecular Sciences at the University of Mississippi: “In the end, this is a disservice to science,” he said. “I don’t think Schedule I is the right thing at this moment because we don’t have the science yet to speak to potential medical benefits — and we think there are medical benefits.” McCurdy has been investigating kratom for a decade, and he and his team have been scrambling to get their latest research published before they can no longer work with the substance. In the research, he said there was “promising data” to suggest that kratom can help transition people off opiates.

There is no doubt that this ban on kratom is a hasty one, and is likely to cripple research into this little understood plant. As cannabis emerges from the period of prohibition caused by poor understanding, it would appear the DEA is set to replace it with another. It looks like history is about to repeat itself.

Via the House

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