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Kratom: Medical Potential And Controversy

From modern user reports and reports about traditional usage, kratom does have a wide variety of potential benefits. A growing number of academic papers and research is beginning to confirm these benefits and effects of kratom, including: use as an antidepressant1, an anti-inflammatory2 and anti-bacterial3. It is used to combat diarrhoea4, and it also has painkilling effects5, and has shown potential as a treatment for diabetes6.

Kratom was first documented as an opiate substitute in Asia7 in the early 19th century, and it is its potential as a cheap, naturally occurring aid to coming off heroin or addictive prescription opiate-based painkillers (such as Oxycontin) that is creating the most excitement in medical circles. Coming off or substituting for dangerous, addictive and very profitable drugs? Now what could possibly be wrong with that?

Well, the legal future of kratom remains on a knife-edge since the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) placed it on its Drugs and Chemicals of Concern list – one step from being scheduled. If this happens, research into kratom’s exciting potential will grind to a halt.

Controversy Around Kratom

Based on the data that is available on kratom, it appears as though the actual plant itself is pretty safe. Unlike opioids, there has never been a single report of human respiratory depression following any dose of kratom. Close reading of all accounts of hospitalization from kratom use has shown other drugs, alcohol and prescription meds to have been involved.

Nevertheless, the DEA has been putting out ill-informed scare stories about it since 2005, almost entirely based on a single report from 1975 by a Thai government researcher warning of ‘kratom psychosis,’ of users becoming dangerous lunatics and acting like modern day hashishin terrorists.

Now Thailand has a bit of history when it comes to maligning its native kratom. As we’ve heard, in Thai folk medicine, the leaf is used for the treatment of diarrhoea and as a substitute in cases of opium addiction. Nothing dodgy there, you might think. But when the Thai government began to levy duties and taxes from users and suppliers in the opium trade, prices rose dramatically and users started to take kratom to manage their withdrawal symptoms.

As World War II spread to East Asia in 1942, the decreasing income from the opium trade prompted the Thai government to suppress the competition and make kratom illegal. They passed the Kratom Act in 1943, banning the planting of new kratom trees and calling for existing ones to be cut down.

It didn't work, and after World War II, the Act was very loosely enforced. Kratom trees were still grown and their leaves chewed openly. In 1979, kratom was included under Schedule 5 (the least restrictive and punitive level) in the Thai Narcotics Act.

Kratom: The Real Threat?

So we can perhaps understand where a certain institutional dislike of kratom in Thailand comes from: the fat cats, politicians and generals hated having their dope profits cut.

And in the US, a similar process is arguably underway. The pharmaceutical firms who earn billions a year from the many addictive, liver damaging, branded opiate pain relievers don’t want competition from some natural, relatively safe and non-addictive rival. Cue the media hubbub and ignorant political kneejerk response.

Herbal alternatives to pharmaceuticals in general are under broad attack, from medicinal cannabis to established and legal herbal remedies, as part of a wider attack on public health. That’s a whole other story for another day (in the meantime, Google Codex alimentarius).

But hey, let’s not be despondent. Kratom is still widely legal and widely available for both medicinal and recreational use, and honest scientists are producing more evidence of its safety and potential usefulness. Maybe honest appraisal of the science and common sense will win out.

External Resources:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20869223
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19648761
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19924042
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18191353
  5. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Ian_Cock/publication/316997559
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18846471
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3670991/
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Kratom