Last week, the Drug Enforcement Administration announced that an unregulated herbal supplement known as kratom will be added to the list of controlled substances, which would effectively ban it. The kratom plant has opioid-like effects and, as KUT reported last month, some Austinites are using it as a safer alternative to pills or heroin.
Earlier in the summer, people who work in the harm-reduction field said they’ve seen Kratom used as a stepping stone for addicts looking to quit.
Dr. Carlos Tirado, an addiction psychiatrist here in Austin, says he doesn’t like the substance’s unregulated status. But, still, he said it is relatively safe compared to true opioids.
“When you get into banning things, it invariably just moves things into an even less regulated black market,” he says. “Bringing it more into some form of formal regulation and formal testing and doing more research, I think, is an appropriate step to take.”
That isn’t the position of the DEA. They’ve fast-tracked kratom’s scheduling as a controlled substance. They say it’s an imminent hazard to public safety. In their notice of intent, they cited 15 deaths between 2014 and 2016 that involved kratom. To put that in context, there were close to 30,000 deaths from prescription pain pills and heroin combined in 2014. When asked how the DEA considered the substance’s harm-reducing potential in its decision, Melvin Patterson of the DEA’s Public Affairs office cited the substance's unpredictability.
“It is dangerous to begin referring to a drug as less dangerous than another drug because our bodies are different and react differently to all drugs ingested, be they legal or illegal," Patterson wrote in an email.
Austin musician and filmmaker Sam Ghanbar says he personally replaced prescription pain pills with Kratom three years ago. He thinks the DEA’s reclassification will negatively impact those who are trying to get off opioids by criminalizing kratom.
“[They're] not going to be buying Kratom off the street," he says. "You know, it’s a teaspoon full of dirt. You’re going to be more inclined to do pills. You can verify it, go online...all that stuff.”
The Kratom ban goes into effect on Sept. 30.