The Food and Drug Administration released a statement Tuesday warning about the dangers of kratom, plant matter from the coffee family which thousands of Americans report using to wean themselves off opioid drugs and to fight the pain the narcotics are prescribed to treat.
The FDA cited a whopping 36 deaths it associated with kratom use in a statement declaring the plant which is popular among Americans looking for alternative pain and addiction therapies unfit for human consumption.
From FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb’s statement:
It’s very troubling to the FDA that patients believe they can use kratom to treat opioid withdrawal symptoms. The FDA is devoted to expanding the development and use of medical therapy to assist in the treatment of opioid use disorder. However, an important part of our commitment to this effort means making sure patients have access to treatments that are proven to be safe and effective. There is no reliable evidence to support the use of kratom as a treatment for opioid use disorder. Patients addicted to opioids are using kratom without dependable instructions for use and more importantly, without consultation with a licensed health care provider about the product’s dangers, potential side effects or interactions with other drugs.
In other words, kratom doesn’t have the medical establishment’s seal of approval– so if you use it for alternative health treatment, you will die.
More importantly, kratom will kill you because it doesn’t make any money for the pharmaceutical industry or the government regulators in its pocket.
Gottlieb admitted this outright, saying: “To date, no marketer has sought to properly develop a drug that includes kratom.”
Because “no marketer” in the pharmaceutical industry is trying sell you kratom, the FDA says it can’t properly determine whether the herbal substance is safe.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of kratom users who will not only tell you that the plant is safe but also how it saved their lives after they were overcome by addiction, pain or both.
There was a pretty excellent article published by Stat last year profiling some such users. And if you still have doubts that kratom is helping people, check out #IAmKratom on Twitter. There, you can read story after story from people helped by the herb.
So why is the FDA really issuing a warning about kratom?
Earlier this year, the Drug Enforcement Agency announced that it wanted to schedule kratom in the same way the federal government classifies drugs like heroin and LSD. But swift public backlash stalled the effort because the uproar would likely have led to legislative input down the road. Congressional involvement could have meant an investigation including very public testimony regarding benefits kratom users report.
With the DEA route shut down for now, the FDA’s advisory is the perfect bureaucratic fix.
As Gottlieb noted:
The FDA has exercised jurisdiction over kratom as an unapproved drug, and has also taken action against kratom-containing dietary supplements. To fulfill our public health obligations, we have identified kratom products on two import alerts and we are working to actively prevent shipments of kratom from entering the U.S. At international mail facilities, the FDA has detained hundreds of shipments of kratom. We’ve used our authority to conduct seizures and to oversee the voluntary destruction of kratom products. We’re also working with our federal partners to address the risks posed by these imports.
In short, the FDA is now involved because it has an industry to protect.
As the nation’s opioid crisis rages on, pharmaceutical companies stand to lose money as doctors become increasingly concerned about the amount of narcotic painkillers they are prescribing. Already, pharma is working to pad profits by making “scientific” claims that antidepressant drugs are just as effective at controlling pain in some of the cases which previously merited narcotic treatment.
The kratom “industry” never paid anyone making decisions at the FDA. The same can’t be said for big pharma.
In fact, GlaxoSmithKline and other pharma giants have paid Gottlieb around $610,000 in consulting fees since 2010.
Readily available kratom creates an alternative for thousands of patients who’d rather not test the theory that drugs designed to fundamentally alter brain chemistry can control localized pain.
Consider this report that came out from Scientific American at around the same time the DEA was attempting to equate kratom to heroin:
Your body would never get used to the perfect painkiller, says Susruta Majumdar, a chemist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. So unlike the case with common opioids such as morphine or Oxycontin, you would not need to take ever-increasing doses to relieve the same amount of pain. The ideal analgesic would not have the high risk of addiction, withdrawal or fatal respiratory slowdowns that have turned opioid abuse into a massive epidemic. The holy grail of painkillers would not induce the seductive euphoria of common opioids or their less-pleasant side effects like itching or constipation.
A painkiller with just one of these properties would be great, but Majumdar thinks he has stumbled onto a class of chemicals that might have them all. They are found in kratom, a plant that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration intends to effectively ban from the U.S. in an emergency move as early as September 30. Without legal access to it, research on some of the most promising leads for a better painkiller may grind to a crawl.
Kratom comes from the Mitragyna speciosa tree native to parts of Southeast Asia, where people chew the leaves for a light, caffeine-like jolt of energy or as a traditional medicine for ailments ranging from diarrhea to pain. Kratom has been illegal since 1943 in Thailand, where it is believed to be addictive. Case studies have suggested that suddenly stopping regular kratom use may lead to withdrawal symptoms—but they are widely considered milder than those associated with opioids.
Stopping kratom use is also much easier than going cold turkey off of many antidepressant drugs. That can be downright dangerous and can cause withdrawal symptoms ranging from a flu-like feeling to hallucinations and psychotic breaks.
But, yeah, kratom will kill you. Pharmaceutical drugs are totally safe. And the government is here to help.