DEA 'waiting for analysis': Kratom may soon be banned

SEATTLE — Kratom grows in Southeast Asia. Its leaves can be chewed, made into pills, ground and steeped into tea or added to food.

The leafy green plant is widely available and advertised as a safe, organic and natural “cure” for opioid addiction, pain relief and even cancer.

In 2016, kratom products exceeded sales of $1 billion in the U.S. alone.

But there's a problem.

Kratom -- a natural opioid --- has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration and may soon be banned in the U.S.

“I don’t know anything about the cancer claims,” said Kenneth Thummel, PhD. “That’s a bit of a stretch to me.”

Thummel, the chairman Chair of the University of Washington’s department of pharmaceutics, is concerned by the lack of research that has been done on kratom to determine its efficacy and safety.

He’s also concerned kratom is widely available for sale – in stores and online -- with no instructions for dosage or serving size.

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“The dose makes the poison,” he told KIRO 7 from his office at UW on Wednesday. “How much are people taking, and is there any instruction about what you shouldn’t exceed?” he asked.

Another problem, according to Thummel, is “adulteration of the product. There’s no regulation on the manufacturing of it. There are cases where products clearly were adulterated with very potent opioids to enhance the product, and that can be fatal,” he said.

The FDA claims kratom has contributed to the deaths of at least 36 people. Click here for more information.

On Wednesday, Special Agent Melvin Patterson told KIRO 7 that the Drug Enforcement Administration is “still waiting for analysis” before deciding whether to designate kratom a Schedule I drug, illegal because it has high abuse potential, no medical use and severe safety concerns.

Heroin, LSD and cocaine are all Schedule I drugs.

Shilo Jama believes making kratom illegal “would be the most idiotic thing” the DEA could do.

As executive director of the People’s Harm Reduction Alliance in Seattle, Jama said he’s seen people successfully treat their opioid addictions using kratom.

“I’m not against kratom in any way,” Jama said. “Kratom has shown to be successful, and for the people who use it for treatment, I think it’s great they found an easy solution that they don’t have to go through a doctor” to utilize.

Jama said kratom is a valuable option for addicts who live in areas where treatment options are not widely available.

He believes, however, that the strength and dosages of kratom should be regulated.  “I am for regulations. I’m not for limiting people’s access to a potential treatment option” he said.

Before consumers believe the widespread claims that kratom can cure addictions abd even cancer, Dr. Thummel would like it to be carefully studied, which he admits would be more difficult if it is designated a Schedule I drug.

“The public is taking a risk in believing the claims,” Thummel said.  “I’m not saying that it’s a very unsafe product, but research needs to be done to establish one way or the other about safety.”