Some Whatcom County residents are dismayed by a Drug Enforcement Administration decision to temporarily ban kratom, which people said they take as a natural painkiller and to curb addiction but which the federal agency said is becoming increasingly abused for its opioid-like effects.
The two-year ban will go into effect at the end of September, even as supporters continue to petition the White House to stop it from being enacted.
More than 132,000 people had signed the petition as of Monday, Sept. 19, while the American Kratom Association continued to argue that kratom has been used in Southeast Asia for centuries as an herbal supplement and traditional remedy.
The DEA said kratom has a high potential for abuse and no medical use that was currently accepted. It is placing mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine, the main active ingredients in the plant, into Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act – meaning it will be in the same category as heroin, LSD and marijuana.
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Kratom advocates counter that it has medical use to treat pain, help with depression and anxiety, and for opiate addiction.
The plant is native to Southeast Asia. Its leaves are ground into a fine powder similar to matcha green tea. People can take it as a pill or can drink it similar to tea, which are the main ways it’s ingested in the U.S.
Its effects vary. It’s sold online and in head shops.
In low doses, kratom is a stimulant that makes people more alert and energetic. In high doses, it acts as a sedative. Different types of kratom also have different effects, those who sell it said.
“A lot of different people use it for a lot of different reasons,” said Nina Nixon, manager of Sugar on Magnolia where kratom is sold as a powder.
Many people use it to self-treat opiate withdrawal symptoms instead of suboxone and methadone, which they may not be able to afford, their insurance won’t pay for, or they don’t like.
Other customers who buy kratom from Sugar on Magnolia use it for pain for similar reasons. They also said it helps alleviate pain without making them feel stoned. Or they use it because they need to be alert for long periods of time.
But they won’t be able to use and buy it legally after the end of September.
“A lot of people are angry. A lot of people are really worried because they’re using it as an alternative for opiates; those people are scared,” Nixon said.
Advocates feared that those who use kratom to wean themselves from opiates, primarily heroin, will return to those drugs when they no longer can get kratom, saying there will be an increase in overdoses when that happens.
Bellingham resident Alex McKay has been using kratom for nearly a year, mixing the powder into water and drinking it to help him stay sober.
“It really has helped me kind of maintain normal activities and not be preoccupied with trying to get a drink,” he said, calling kratom affordable medicine with very minimal side effects.
McKay is tapering off kratom now. He will start researching medical marijuana, which is legal in Washington state, for anxiety and depression, for which he had been using alcohol to self-medicate.
Jaculine Mitchell, behavioral health program specialist with the Whatcom County Public Health Department, said federal officials were right to be cautious.
“I’d love to believe that there is a miracle cure for opiate addiction,” Mitchell said.
“Until a substance is studied in depth, scientifically proven as to its medical effectiveness, treatment potential, appropriate dosing levels, toxicity, and potential side effects, we simply don’t know the true effect of a substance like kratom,” she said.