The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has temporarily reversed its decision to ban the use of kratom.
The agency on Oct. 13 released a notice of intent in the journal Federal Register to withdraw the Southeast Asian plant from its list of Schedule I drugs. This list includes marijuana, heroin and LSD.
Schedule I substances have no medical use and a high potential for abuse, according to the DEA.
Chuck Rosenberg, acting administrator of the DEA, said in the notice that the agency “has received numerous comments from members of the public challenging the scheduling action and requesting that the agency consider those comments and accompanying information before taking further action.”
Kratom is a mind-altering substance with opioid-like effects. It has been used as an opium substitute in Southeast Asia for centuries. Use of the herb has become widespread in the United States over the last decade.
In August, the agency issued a notice of intent in the Federal Register to classify kratom as a Schedule I substance, temporarily banning the drug. The DEA cited an evaluation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found 660 poison control calls involving kratom from January 2010 to December 2015.
However, the public widely criticized the move. This outcry contributed to the DEA’s decision to reverse the ban.
The DEA’s change of heart surprised John Hudak, the deputy director of the Center for Effective Public Management and a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
“The DEA is not one to second-guess itself, no matter what the facts are,” Hudak told The Washington Post.
The DEA received heavy backlash upon releasing its notice to outlaw kratom in August. DEA spokesman Melvin Patterson said the agency was surprised by the volume of complaints.
“That was eye-opening for me personally,” he told The Washington Post.
Many kratom advocates say the herb poses few health consequences and helps ease chronic pain. Some kratom users have even said the substance has helped them overcome opioid or alcohol addiction.
In a letter to the DEA, a bipartisan group of 51 U.S. representatives called the intent to ban kratom a significant public health threat. The group also said the August decision threatened the transparency of the drug scheduling process, as the agency did not take public comments from consumers, researchers and other stakeholders.
Patterson said he could see the agency classifying kratom as a Schedule III, IV or V substance in the future.
According to the DEA, Schedule III substances have moderate to low potential for physical and psychological dependence. These drugs include ketamine, anabolic steroids and testosterone.
Schedule IV substances have low potential for abuse and low risk of dependence. Xanax, Soma and Valium are grouped in this category.
Schedule V substances have lower potential for abuse than Schedule IV substances and consist of preparations containing limited quantities of certain narcotics. These substances include Lomotil, Lyrica and Parepectolin.
“Kratom’s at a point where it needs to be recognized as medicine,” Patterson told The Washington Post. “I think that we are going to find out that probably it does.”
Denver’s Department of Environmental Health forced 15 nearby retailers to pull kratom products from their shelves after the DEA announced its intent to ban the substance. In light of recent news, the department has rescinded this decision.
Many kratom advocates remain cautiously optimistic. The DEA could still put the substance on emergency schedule. The agency could even permanently ban the drug, a process that could last a couple of years.
“That’s the place where you get nervous still,” Chris McCurdy, a pharmacologist and kratom researcher at the University of Mississippi, told Scientific American.
The DEA also wants to hear from the public. The agency is opening a six-week period for the public to express concerns, report research findings and provide other comments related to the use of kratom.
After the public comment period, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will send a scientific and medical evaluation to the DEA. This report will include a scheduling recommendation for the substance.
All comments to the DEA regarding kratom must be submitted electronically or in writing.