Growing more widely available, kratom, a substance created from a tree native to Thailand, has quickly become a favorite alternative substance for individuals recovering from substance abuse. However, medical experts warn about the dangers of the substance, as more and more relapses and other health concerns are being caused by kratom.
Substance abuse experts and government officials say kratom, a substance that is often a popular alternative to opium/heroin, is addicting and may lead to relapse among individuals recovering from drug addiction.
Kratom is derived from a tree native to Thailand when its leaves are dried and crushed to make a powder. It was banned by the government of Thailand in 1943 after people started abusing the substance regularly. Today in the U.S., kratom, which is usually brewed into tea or some sort of beverage, can be found at specialized bars and cafes that serve drinks with the substance in them.
Kratom causes opium-like “highs” for users, making it alarming to substance abuse officials. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has placed kratom on the “Drug and Chemicals of Concern” list and said that there is “no legitimate medical use for Kratom.” The Food and Drug Administration also banned imports of kratom in 2014. However, the substance is still regularly smuggled into the U.S. and can be legally bought in bars and smoke shops across the country.
Research shows that kratom is a mind-altering substance that can be addicting like any other drug. Kratom produces stimulant effects in low doses and sedative effects in high doses and is often embraced as a natural painkiller or a way to curb opiate and heroin cravings. Dr. Gayle Scott, an assistant professor at Eastern Virginia, says that kratom’s effects are unique.
“Kratom is the only drug that I can think of that has two very different pharmacological effects depending on dose,” said Scott.
Dr. Edward W. Boyer, a professor of emergency medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and an expert who has authored many scientific articles on kratom, says that people have a great chance of becoming addicted to kratom.
“Recreationally or to self-treat opioid dependence, beware, potentially you’re at just as much risk [of developing an addiction to kratom],” Boyer said.
Additionally, other research on kratom shows that abuse of the substance can lead to issues with memory, learning and other cognitive functions.
Some states have deemed kratom dangerous enough to ban the substance outright. Vermont, Wisconsin, Indiana and Tennessee have made kratom illegal. Iowa, Michigan and New Jersey currently have legislation pending that will determine the future legal status of the substance in those states. While some states see the substance as dangerous, kratom remains legal in most states around the country and can be bought and used at a variety places.
The popularity of kratom has skyrocketed in south Florida, as bars serving the substance are popping up throughout the region. Resident’s like Dariya Pankova, a recovering heroin addict who relapsed after habitual kratom use, have experienced firsthand what kratom use can lead to.
“It’s a huge epidemic down here, and it’s causing a lot of relapses,” Pankova said.
Some individuals say kratom is a good substitute for more dangerous drugs, much in the way methadone is used to treat individuals with heroin addictions. However medical experts like Boyer say that people should be weary of using kratom as a form of substance addiction treatment.
The risks associated with kratom have become more apparent in south Florida after the death of Ian Mautner, who committed suicide in 2014. Mautner’s mother, Linda Mautner, claims that her so was addicted to kratom and that the drug was a huge factor in what led to his suicide. Kratom has also been linked to suicides in Atlanta and other parts of the United States as well.
In 2013, Boyer spoke with Scientific American magazine about kratom and the substance’s risks. He also discussed a patient who he believed was extremely addicted to kratom.
“I can tell you the guy in our Mass General case report went from injecting Dilaudid to using [$15,000] worth of kratom per year,” Boyer said. “That kind of sounds addictive to me. My gut is that, yeah, people can be addicted to it.”