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Kratom: (Un)Healthy Supplement?

Kratom - Shutterstock

By Bill Barlow

COURT HOUSE – In a corner tobacco shop, in Middle Township, pipes, cigars, and cigarettes seem to have given way to vape pens and other products. Brightly colored packages tout flavors like raspberry cookie, pomegranate ice pop, and Swedish fish delivering a nicotine punch. 

The shop also offers cannabidiol (CBD), an ingredient of marijuana that does not deliver the effects of its chemical relative delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and kratom.  

Those who don’t recognize that second one (kratom) are not alone.  

“There are still many people who have never heard of kratom,” said Kathy Gibson, director of recovery services, Cape Assist. “My parents would have no idea what it is.”  

Some news stories described kratom as a dangerous new drug or a trendy plant-derived substance, but it’s hardly new. It’s been used in traditional medicine and home remedies for hundreds of years in Southeast Asia, where the plant it’s derived from grows wild. In the U.S., it has mostly remained under the radar.   

While the plant has some vocal proponents, it also has some high-profile critics, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which says it appears to have properties that expose users to the risk of addiction, abuse, and dependence, and the Mayo Clinic, which warns of dangerous side effects.  

Count Gibson as one of the critics.  

Kratom has been readily available in Cape May County for about five years, she said. It’s sold in stores and over the internet, with little regulation.  

Some use it as a dietary supplement – how it’s officially sold and marketed – or as a replacement for morning coffee or something to relax them in the evening.  

Many others use it as an opioid replacement, she said. That includes people trying to end dependence on heroin, Oxycontin, or other forms of the highly addictive family of substances.  

Others want something that mimics the high but will not appear on most drug screenings, according to Gibson and other sources.  

“We have a lot of people who will replace opiate use with kratom use,” she said. In some ways, that could make sense. The substance is much less risky in cases of overdose, but Gibson maintains that people go through the same issues of addiction and abuse as with other substances.  

Kratom is regulated in six states, but not in New Jersey. State Assemblyman Ronald Dancer (R-12th) introduced a series of bills to criminalize it. The most recent was in 2020. None made it out of committee.  

Dancer did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

There was also consideration to list kratom on the federal Schedule I, which is supposed to be reserved for substances with no medicinal benefit and a high danger of abuse.  

For instance, LSD and marijuana are on Schedule I, while cocaine, methamphetamine, and fentanyl are on the less restrictive Schedule II.  

The FDA changed its course on kratom, according to a statement from the American Kratom Association, an advocacy organization that opposes banning the substance.  

In a statement released Jan. 28, the group said the scientific research did not justify the rescheduling. Instead, the group argued, kratom could have helped people using dangerous opioids.   

The organization, and other proponents, say kratom is a safe herbal supplement that can help manage pain. The group’s website indicates it supports some regulation, such as limiting purchases to those over 18 and the use of child-resistant packaging.  

For now, as marijuana legalization for adults gains support around the nation and a referendum received overwhelming approval in New Jersey, there seems little appetite among most lawmakers to impose new regulations on a substance many people have never heard of.  

A recent story in the New York Post reports it has a growing popularity among soccer moms, even though it is “often associated with former heroin users.”  

Often sold as a fine green powder, it can be taken as a tea or in capsules. On one site, a package of 30 capsules, each containing half a gram of kratom, is $7.20.  

“Kratom is also used at music festivals and in other recreational settings. People who use kratom for relaxation report that because it is plant-based, it is natural and safe,” reads a report from the Mayo Clinic. “However, the amount of active ingredient in kratom plants can vary greatly, making it difficult to gauge the effect of a given dose. Depending on what is in the plant and the health of the user, taking kratom may be very dangerous.”  

Kratom-related deaths have been reported, according to the site, with numerous reports to poison control centers related to the substance.   

The effects of a low dose act as a stimulant, similar to a strong cup of coffee. At higher doses, the Mayo Clinic report reads, it reduces pain and may bring on euphoria. It can also lead to weight loss, nausea, liver damage, and hallucinations, the report states. The effects can last for hours.  

There are no FDA-approved uses for kratom. The federal organization has warned companies against making unproven claims about its use as a cure or to overcome opioid addiction.  

“FDA is concerned that kratom, which affects the same opioid brain receptors as morphine, appears to have properties that expose users to the risks of addiction, abuse, and dependence,” reads a statement from the administration.  

“Natural kratom comes from the mitragyna speciose, a tropical evergreen tree in the coffee family native to Southeast Asia, whose leaves have been used for centuries as an herbal supplement in traditional medicines,” says the American Kratom Association, which describes itself as a consumer advocacy organization.  

The group alleges that the FDA launched an unrelenting disinformation campaign, arguing there are unfair attacks in cities, counties and townships, as well as at the state and federal level.  

“The FDA is spending millions of our tax dollars to wage war on the kratom community. We have to fight back in every way that we can,” reads the site. 

To contact Bill Barlow, email bbarlow@cmcherald.com. 

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