AUSTIN (KXAN) — An herbal drug sold as a natural alternative to pain medication will soon be banned from stores. It’s called kratom, and is made from the leaf of a tree common in southeast Asia.
People take it by mixing its powder into a drink, or by swallowing pills. It can work as a stimulant but higher doses can produce a pain-relieving effect.
Some use it to help get off of other opioids, like heroin or hydrocodone. But the DEA has deemed it too dangerous, with a high potential for abuse. The agency says it currently has no accepted medical use for treatment in the United States, and plan to put the two active ingredients in kratom, mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine, on its Schedule I drug list by the end of the month.
However, many users disagree with the move.
Collin Belcher says the drug saved his life. He moved to Austin to get sober after years of opioid addiction, but eventually relapsed. Desperate for help, someone recommended kratom.
“I was kind of skeptical about it because I didn’t want any mental obsessions about it, something I’m going to get addicted to again. But I was withdrawing and had no other options,” said Belcher. Belcher used it for three days and says it worked. “It basically took the edge off for me to where I didn’t have any cravings to want to leave and go get some more that I was really craving for. It helped with the upset stomach, diarrhea symptoms, it was amazing. I had no idea something like that existed before.”
Right now you can easily purchase kratom in Austin. Wizard Hat Smoke Shop sells products from an Austin-based company, Moon Kratom. They say many customers are like Belcher, using it to get off other drugs.
“A lot of people are scared,” said Cory McCullough, a Wizard Hat Smoke Shop employee. “If they don’t have this to wean themselves off, they’re going to be strictly dependent on opioids.”
He and other advocates of kratom use are encouraging people to sign a petition to stop the DEA from putting kratom on its Schedule I drug list.
However, there’s little medical research on the drug proving its effectiveness.
Dr. Kim Kjome, an Inpatient Psychiatrist at Seton Shoal Creek, has seen an uptick in recent years of patients using kratom. In 2010, the DEA listed the kratom as a “Drug and Chemical of Concern.”
“Most of the time when we see someone come in using kratom, it’s because they’re trying to get off of an opioid like heroin, or something that’s a prescription opioid like Lortab, that they’re misusing. Or they’re using it in combination with something else,” said Kjome.
Dr. Kjome says the drug can cause withdrawal symptoms if stopped at a high enough dose. “That means they’ll have upset stomach, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle cramps, they’ll have goose pimples, they’ll notice that their nose runs, and that they feel miserable.”
Dr. Kjome says you can use opioids to get off opioids, citing Suboxone as a prime example. She says more research on kratom in treating addiction would be interesting.
“There have been case reports of people using it for pain relief, there have been case reports of people using it to get off other opioids, but no systematized studies for that.”
However, once kratom officially becomes a Schedule I Substance, it will be difficult for researchers to get grant money to actually do the research.
In 2012, KXAN News reported how Austin Recovery, a drug rehabilitation facility, says they were admitting more and more people who were addicted to kratom.