As a reporter covering the government’s efforts to crack down on the herbal supplement kratom, I’ve interviewed dozens of advocates who swear by its therapeutic potential.
Some tout the substance, made from the leaves of Mitragyna speciosa, a Southeast Asian tree related to coffee, as nothing short of a miracle drug. Others are more reserved in their praise. And although kratom users vary in their enthusiasm about the herb’s efficacy, almost everyone seems to agree that its psychoactive properties are simply not potent enough for it to be categorized alongside heroin and LSD.
That has continued to be one of the kratom community’s principal arguments since news emerged that the Drug Enforcement Administration plans to place the herb on Schedule I as early as the end of the month. Drugs in this category are considered to have no known medical benefit and a high potential for abuse. Emerging scientific research and the success stories of thousands of kratom users call that contention into question. A White House petition asking President Barack Obama to intervene has drawn more than 122,000 signatures, crossing the threshold that requires a response from the administration.
Hundreds of kratom advocates rallied in front of the White House on Tuesday to protest the federal government’s moves to ban and criminalize their treatment.
Over chants of “kratom saves lives” and “plants not pills,” a number of users handed out cups of kratom tea, giving attendees an opportunity to try the herb and judge its acute effects for themselves.
I accepted the offer. For journalism, of course.
My experience is in no way intended to be an endorsement of any claims about the benefits or harms that may or may not be associated with kratom. It’s just the latest in a long list of personal anecdotes, which are admittedly insignificant to a federal government that insists marijuana ― a drug that nearly 50 percent of U.S. adults have tried ― also belongs in Schedule I. But I can now say I agree that kratom’s psychoactive effects appear mild, at least when taken in low to moderate doses.
Kathy Jeno, a kratom user who made the trip from Minnesota to attend Tuesday’s rally, was kind enough to share her medicine with me. She poured her typical dose of kratom ― 2 teaspoons, or almost 2 grams ― into a bottle of iced coffee, shook it up and promised me I wouldn’t trip balls. In my nervous excitement, I forgot to ask her which of the various strains of kratom I was about to consume. (For more on Jeno’s story, watch a video from Tuesday’s rally below.)
The coffee effectively masked the earthy flavor of the kratom, but left the concoction with a chalky consistency, like a protein powder drink. It’s pretty clear that nobody is taking this stuff because it tastes great.
Kratom contains alkaloids that appear to activate opioid receptors in the brain and reduce pain. And although most opioids have sedative qualities, low to moderate quantities of kratom actually serve as a mild stimulant. Those compounds, mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine, are what the DEA is specifically moving to ban.
About 20 minutes after finishing the drink, I started to notice some of the commonly reported effects. I felt a familiar feeling, like a caffeine buzz ― that buoyant, airy feeling I used to get years ago, when a double shot of espresso actually affected me. My heart rate felt slightly elevated, though I didn’t take my pulse to measure a change.
I also felt sweatier than normal, though it was hard to tell if that was due to the kratom or from having been out in the heat for the previous hour and a half.
The kratom also produced some mild gastrointestinal effects, a few awkward burps here and there, which left me bordering on nausea for a few minutes.
And that was it. A few hours later, I was completely back to normal.
I never felt what I would describe as “high,” though all in all, kratom actually had a stronger physiological effect than I’d anticipated. But I’ll admit that I’m a relative lightweight when it comes to many substances, and in retrospect, taking 2 grams the first time was probably not the smartest approach.
As with any drug, it’s best to ease your way in until you’re aware of how it will affect you, so you can take an appropriate amount. Instead, I downed the same dose of kratom that Jeno takes to treat the chronic pain stemming from a back surgery that left her with about a dozen screws in her spine. She takes it a few times a day, and stays away from prescription drugs altogether.
What can I say, being in front of a camera makes people do stupid things. But most bad decisions don’t involve a camera. I have no doubt that some people might choose to take a heavy dose of kratom for recreational use, perhaps even to a level that produces so much discomfort they seek medical help. It’s a consequence of the innate human desire to alter one’s consciousness, which drug warriors have been trying unsuccessfully to control through prohibition for the past 45 years and beyond.
The DEA’s claim that kratom poses an “imminent hazard to public safety” relies heavily on a 2016 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that documented 660 calls involving kratom made to U.S. poison centers from January 2010 to December 2015. Although the majority of these cases only required minimal treatment or none whatsoever, 49 cases involved “life-threatening signs or symptoms, with some residual disability.”
It’s so far been impossible to isolate the harm caused by kratom exposure alone, however, as many calls involved people who had used the herb in combination with other substances. That lack of clarity hasn’t stopped the DEA from raising the specter of more severe toxicity, highlighting “numerous deaths associated with kratom.”
But the agency has failed to provide an example in which the herb was found to be the only contributor. Such a case does not appear to exist. Most deaths associated with kratom have involved people who reportedly tested positive for multiple substances or were suffering from pre-existing medical conditions. Users report that consuming too much kratom will only lead to nausea and vomiting. After today, I can imagine how that might play out.
My own experience with kratom also says little about the herb’s broader potential for dependency and addiction. Many people are dependent on coffee, so much so that they’re allowed to tell the rest of the world not to talk to them until they’ve had their morning fix. If you’ve worked kratom into your daily routine, trying to stop entirely might not be pleasant. That said, many users have told me that withdrawals associated with kratom are less painful than the ones associated with caffeine, and certainly other opioids.
So, would I do kratom again? I don’t feel any particular urge to do so. But I don’t suffer from chronic pain or any of the other conditions that people most commonly use it for, so my decision-making process is pretty straightforward. Most of the advocates I talked to on Tuesday aren’t so lucky.
Videos produced by Amber Ferguson.