If you should happen to be perusing an article in a magazine, newspaper or online that purports to alert the public about the dangers of the latest drug fads, it might include a mention of an obscure substance known as kratom.
This little-known Asian herbal medicine, which has actually been around for decades, is now apparently being consumed in ever-increasing quantities by young people who frequent the underground drug scene.
Some drug authorities have made comparisons between kratom and bath salts, a class of deceptively-labeled chemical intoxicants that have been widely available over the counter and online for years and which are known to have dangerous and toxic side effects when snorted, injected or smoked.
In contrast, kratom has been touted by its supporters for its advanced ability to relieve pain, boost energy and reduce anxiety. But critics say these claims are a smokescreen, designed to mislead law enforcement agencies and public health officials and prevent the public from knowing the truth about a highly addictive and highly dangerous unregulated substance.
Kratom has in fact been banned in several countries around the world, and here in the U.S. its presence has been detected in the bodies of dozens of people who have been admitted to hospital emergency rooms suffering from the symptoms of drug overdose.
Is kratom, as some people are now suggesting, really a dangerous drug that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with bath salts, or with any other kind of addictive substance? Young people have been buying it and using it for its mood-altering properties, this is something that cannot be denied. But while on the surface it might appear as if there is great reason for concern, a closer look reveals a more complicated picture.
Is kratom an intoxicant?
Prized for many centuries for its curative abilities by the indigenous cultures of Southeast Asia, kratom is produced from the leaves of the mitragyna speciosa tree, and is sold in the United States in its original raw leaf form or as the active ingredient in gel capsules. Kratom can be chewed, smoked, swallowed, or used to make tea, and the dosages being consumed by those who are using it to get high rather than as a pain killer or mood enhancer are much greater than what is normally recommended. Kratom has mild opiate-like effects, and the side effects it can allegedly cause include nausea, dizziness, constipation, hallucinations, and delusions. There are no claims that kratom is physically addictive, but any substance that alters brain chemistry enough to cause feelings of euphoria, as large amounts of kratom most certainly can, is potentially psychologically addictive and can lead to compulsive, uncontrolled patterns of consumption that could ultimately put the user’s physical and mental health at risk.
Visits to hospitals by individuals who have been ingesting kratom have been on the rise in recent years, and the US Drug Enforcement Agency officially lists kratom as a “Drug or Chemical of Concern.” Despite its current legal status, the US Food and Drug Administration has never actually approved kratom for human consumption, meaning that while its sale is legal, kratom retailers are prohibited from advertising it as a remedy for pain or anxiety.
The truth About kratom
In a climate where it has proven virtually impossible for law enforcement agencies and government regulators to keep up with the latest developments in the underground drug intoxicant milieu, it is very easy for legitimate concern about something new and unfamiliar to morph into hysteria and paranoia, and this appears to be what has happened with kratom.
It would be hard to find a substance whose users swear by it more vociferously than is the case with kratom. If the anecdotal evidence is to be believed, this traditional herbal medicine has apparently been a godsend for thousands of people suffering from chronic pain, anxiety, and depression. Somewhat ironically, kratom has also gained quite a reputation for its ability to help people break their addictions to unquestionably dangerous chemical substances such as heroin and OxyContin, as it is able to fool the brain and body by mimicking the effects of more potent opiates and other mind-altering drugs. Also, it appears that the claim that kratom can cause hallucinations or delusions is itself a delusion, since the neurological pathways that it follows and the soothing effects it has at high doses would not be consistent with such effects.
Much of the misunderstandings about kratom and the alleged negative side effects of its use are probably based on the fact that those who are desperate to get high frequently use it in combination with stronger chemical intoxicants. Generally speaking, even if used in excess of recommended amounts, kratom’s mild opiate-like effects would not be capable of causing symptoms that might lead one to seek treatment at a hospital emergency room, i.e., vomiting, extreme dizziness, loss of consciousness, hallucinations, or delusions. Unless a hidden allergy is present (which it certainly could be in some cases, kratom has not been studied enough for medical experts to know much about its allergy causing potential) people who are visiting emergency rooms after consuming kratom are most likely suffering from a negative reaction to other chemical substances being consumed concurrently with this ancient herbal medicine. Extra large doses of kratom could perhaps be implicated in some of these emergency room visits, especially if the primary symptom reported is extreme nausea, but almost any substance could conceivably make a person sick if ingested in ridiculously massive amounts.
Parents, law enforcement agencies, public health officials, and citizens in general all have reason to be concerned about the proliferation of intoxicating chemicals that young people in particular seem so anxious to experiment with. But it is a mistake to lump every unfamiliar herbal substance under the same category as bath salts, heroin, or OxyContin, as if everything that has not been explicitly sanctioned by the FDA or prescribed by a physician should automatically be assumed to be toxic, addictive, and dangerous.
The misuse and abuse of kratom are certainly not a good—not by any means, but in this instance it is the pattern of behavior that should be our primary cause for concern and not the substance itself, which is unlikely to cause any truly dangerous health effects in most instances even when being consumed in higher-than-normal amounts. According to those who use it for medical purposes it appears that kratom is both safe and effective, and it would be a shame if their access to it were eventually restricted because of excessive fear about its potential intoxicating effects.