December 02, 2016 | DR. SCOTT D. ROSE, SPECIAL CONTRIBUTOR
At the end of August 2016, the DEA declared an emergency ban on kratom.
How crazy is the War on Drugs in America? Well, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recently tried to fast track kratom, an herb native to Southeast Asia, to Schedule I narcotic status and then changed its mind. Kratom has been used widely for centuries to ease pain, boost work performance, reduce anxiety, diminish PTSD and wean people from opiate addiction. In recent years the herb has gained a following in the United States, sold by online merchants and head shops as an herbal medicine, dietary supplement or legal high. Kratom has been in the crosshairs of the DEA since it announced in 2013 that there is no legitimate medical use for kratom. Kratom was almost labeled a Schedule I narcotic due to the temporary scheduling provisions of the Controlled Substances Act. Public outcry from online petitions, social media groups, protests, researchers (who would be stopped in their tracks on continuing current and future research on kratom), and letters from 51 members of Congress forced an unprecedented action by the DEA to reverse its decision to ban kratom, which is legal in the U.S., at least for now.
At the end of August 2016, the DEA declared an emergency ban on kratom. The ban was to go into effect as early as the end of September 2016, placing kratom into Schedule I narcotic status alongside heroin, LSD, and yes, even Cannabis. According to the temporary scheduling provisions of the Controlled Substances Act, this temporary ban would last for a period of at least two years, beginning a process of permanent Schedule I status.
The fact that kratom has become widely available and perceived as a recreational drug seemed to have offended the DEA. The explanation of its ban noted, “kratom had never been approved by the government for any use.” The DEA figures if a psychoactive substance is not explicitly permitted, it should be prohibited. The DEA pointed to an increase in the number of calls to poison control centers related to kratom as a justification for acting swiftly, without seeking input from other government agencies, and with no opportunity for public comment. In the emergency scheduling notice published in the Federal Register, the DEA cited a July 2016 report from the CDC that claimed kratom was “an emerging public health threat.” According to the CDC, kratom-related calls to poison control centers rose from 26 calls in 2010 to 263 in 2015 — a total of 660 calls over a six-year period. In comparison, in 6 years, poison centers received 23,303 calls about caffeine and 66,300 calls about essential oils.
In the 11th hour, the ban was dropped (for now). The DEA’s spokesman, Melvin Patterson, has responded to the public backlash that included a White House petition with over 135,000 signatures calling on the DEA to delay this “hasty decision.” Many thought that the intent was to ban the herb so Big Pharma could make it into a pharmaceutical pill. “I don’t see it being Schedule II [or higher] because that would be a drug that’s highly addictive. Kratom is at a point where it needs to be recognized as medicine,” Patterson told the Washington Post, seemingly contradicting his employer’s position.
“I want the kratom community to know that the DEA does hear them,” Patterson said. “Our goal is to make sure this is available to all of them.” Patterson also said the reaction to the ban ‘‘was eye-opening for me personally.”
The DEA, which has a long “record of ignoring both science and public opinion,” has responded to an outcry by the public in an unprecedented act by reversing its decision, perhaps representing a cultural shift around access to such herbs. However, kratom advocates and researchers are cautious about how much they celebrate. The DEA could still put the substance on an emergency ban at a later time, or the agency could permanently schedule the plant, a process that can take a couple of years. Kratom is still on the DEA’s list of Drugs and Chemicals of Concern and is still illegal under local laws in Tennessee, Vermont, Wisconsin, Indiana, Arkansas and Alabama. Public pressure keeps the herb unregulated for now, encouraging users and researchers who seek a safer alternative to opioids.