Kratom is a drug made from the leaves of Mitragyna speciosa, a tropical species of tree native to Thailand and Indonesia. The broad leafed, evergreen tree bears round spiky seed pods similar to a sweet gum tree. When chewed or consumed in tea, kratom leaves have a psychoactive effect that dulls pain and increases alertness. Kratom is illegal in Thailand, but the substance remains legal in the United States. Why?
What is Kratom?
In Thailand the locals have been using kratom as a medicine and social stimulant for centuries. There, it is the third most common illegal drug after methamphetamines and marijuana. Since the tree is indigenous to the local rain forests, it is difficult to control. Most of the kratom available on the global market today originates in Southeast Asia.
The D.E.A. is aware that kratom has potential for abuse here in the U.S., but thus far have only declared it a substance of concern. More research is needed to determine if the herb has medicinal properties, or rather if there are dangerous side effects. Kratom powders and pills are readily available online where they are marketed as a health supplement.
Risks and Side Effects of Kratom
The drug is classified as a stimulant and a depressant in the opioid analgesic category. The active chemical compound known as Mitragynine binds to the same receptors in the brain that morphine does. Proponents argue that this makes kratom an ideal painkiller, especially for those trying to come down off of an opiate addiction. There is also serotonin stimulation that induces a sense of well-being.
Of course there is a downside; too much kratom makes the user feel nauseous. Long-term abusers often lose weight and develop insomnia, dry mouth, constipation and a darkening of the skin. Doctors say the drug is likely addictive, and there have been occasional reports of withdrawal symptoms similar to heroin.
Kratom Use in the U.S.
News reports of kratom use in the U.S. have increased since 2012, although the drug has been listed in the Erowid Drug Vault since 1999 – suggesting American drug culture has been aware of it for some time now. There is even a commercial market for kratom t-shirts, coffee mugs and other merchandise in the U.S.
In September 2013, Dr. Edward Boyer at the University of Massachusetts Medical School found that kratom did help with symptoms of prescription opiate withdrawal. The following month, a Chicago distributor of kratom was arrested for allegedly offering an undercover agent seven pounds of cocaine to kill his business competitor.
Some call kratom the new bath salts. But seeing how it is a natural plant-based high favored by indigenous peoples for thousands of years, I would say it is closer to the coca of South America.