A new compound with effects similar to opioids has been gaining in popularity in the United States. Called kratom, the drug is native to Southeast Asia and has been billed as having medicinal purposes. However, many medical experts worry that people struggling with opioid addiction are using kratom to replace one addiction with another. So, is kratom an opioid and should it be made illegal? The answer is not entirely clear.
What Is Kratom?
Although kratom appeared in the United States and Europe relatively recently, it has been used in Southeast Asia for centuries. The drug is derived from the kratom plant, Mitragyna speciosa, which is related to the coffee tree. Recreational kratom use is widespread in Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia. People in this area chew kratom leaves, leading to a mild stimulant effect. At higher doses, the drug has sedative properties that are very similar to opioids. The euphoria associated with higher doses of kratom lasts several hours.
Kratom was first billed as a medicinal substance that can be particularly useful for people suffering from opioid dependence. The rationale is that kratom may be less addictive than prescription opioids or heroin. Thus, heroin users were encouraged to use kratom to soothe their withdrawal symptoms without furthering their drug dependence. Kratom also has pain-relieving effects, causing some people to take it as a “natural” alternative to prescription opioids. Unfortunately, new evidence suggests that kratom itself may be addictive, causing people suffering from opioid dependence to shift from one drug to another.
Does Kratom Act on Opioid Receptors?
The exact chemical and physiological properties of kratom are not known. However, the drug appears to act as a mu-opioid receptor agonist, meaning that it stimulates the same brain receptors as other opiates such as morphine. Although it acts on the same receptors, kratom has a somewhat different profile of effects than other opiates. More research is needed to determine what causes kratom’s stimulant effects at low doses and how it differs from other opioid drugs.
Like other opiates, kratom may lead to withdrawal syndrome. Kratom withdrawal is associated with a similar profile of symptoms as prescription opioids or heroin. Acute symptoms include constipation, increased need to urinate, loss of appetite, nausea, sweating, and itching. The kratom withdrawal syndrome may also induce runny nose, muscle aches, bone aches, involuntary limb movements, emotional lability, and aggression. In some cases, kratom effects may even including hallucinations or psychosis.
Is Kratom Legal?
The increasing popularity of kratom points to a hole in the U.S. system governing the legality of drugs with the potential to be abused. When kratom first appeared in the United States, it was not a regulated substance. Thus, kratom could be legally sold over the Internet and in bars. It is possible to purchase kratom in numerous forms, including whole or crushed leaves, powder, extract, resin, and capsules.
Because the drug is fairly recent to hit the United States, it has not been deemed a controlled substance under the Controlled Substances Act. Additionally, as a botanical supplement, the Food and Drug Administration does not regulate its sale. This leaves kratom in a sort of legal limbo at the federal level, with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) aware of its impact but unable to regulate its use.
Despite this, numerous states have moved to make the possession and sale of kratom illegal. In May 2016, Alabama became the sixth state in the U.S. to make kratom illegal. Several other states, including Florida, Kentucky, and Georgia, have pending legislation to make the drug illegal. Thus, it is important to check state and local legislation before using kratom, as its legality may be different from state to state.
Conclusion: Is Kratom an Opioid?
Because kratom stimulates mu opioid receptors, it can be safely classified as an opiate-like drug. Like other opiates, chronic use of kratom may lead to drug dependence and addiction.
Kratom, an Addict’s Alternative, Is Found to Be Addictive Itself, The New York Times. Retrieved on 07/18/2016.
Effects of Kratom, Narconon International. Retrieved on 07/18/2016.
People are flocking to Florida bars for a legal but dangerous drug, Business Insider. Retrieved on 07/18/2016.
KRATOM (Mitragyna speciosa korth), Drug Enforcement Administration, Office of Diversion Control, Drug & Chemical Evaluation Section. Retrieved on 07/18/2016.