This is the first of a four-part series examining kratom, a plant traditionally used as a medicine but in recent years has gained popularity as a recreational drug.
(CN) — I first heard of kratom on the morning of Feb. 5, 2021, when my sister called to say her firstborn son James had died from an overdose. He was 21 years old.
James started using kratom in 2019 to quit drinking — and it worked — but he was soon addicted, gobbling down heaps of the bitter, pulverized leaf to enjoy what some users describe as a safe, legal high. He had been hospitalized twice before after suffering seizures from taking the drug, which is illegal to import to the U.S. but legal to sell in 44 states.
My sister found James in his bed when she went in to feed the cats. He’d been dead for hours; his body was cold.
“His face was caked in vomit,” she told me. “It looked like he was wearing a mud mask.”
Like most kratom addicts, James thought it was safe. The industry insists kratom is neither deadly nor especially addictive, and that any claims to the contrary are part of a conspiracy between the overzealous federal government and law enforcement (and maybe Big Pharma) to disparage and suppress a natural and potential miracle cure that offers relaxation, pain relief, athletic performance enhancement, a path away from opiates and, according to some vendors, even a cure for Covid-19.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration announced its intention to place kratom on Schedule 1 — making it as illegal as heroin — in 2016. Thousands of kratom users and sellers flooded the government with comments supporting kratom, and 62 members of Congress, including Senators Bernie Sanders and Orrin Hatch, signed a letter advising the DEA to stand down. The agency quietly backed away. Nothing like that had ever happened before.
“It’s never really killed anyone,” says Chris Bell, whose 2018 documentary “A Leaf of Faith” evangelized use of kratom for pain management and chronicled the uprising to prevent its prohibition.
This past August, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration asked the World Health Organization to assess kratom, and the kratom movement responded again. At least 75,000 people reportedly testified to kratom’s medicinal value, hoping to sway the WHO’s drug dependence committee conducting a “pre-review” of kratom as a drug of potential abuse. On Dec. 6, the WHO announced that it would keep kratom “under surveillance” — the lowest rung of its regulatory ladder.
“Kratom can produce serious toxicity in people who use high-doses, but the number of cases is probably low as a proportion of the total number of people who use kratom,” the WHO’s assessment reads.
It was another victory for the kratom industry.
Backed by a professional lobbying outfit and a shadowy array of nonprofits, kratom users and sellers claim the federal government is on a yearslong vendetta against their drug of choice, akin to the “reefer madness” that put marijuana on the DEA’s list of most dangerous drugs decades ago. They want kratom, currently illegal in a long list of countries, six U.S. states and a fistful of individual counties, to be regulated as food.
“You just cannot, at multiples that are 40 times the average dosage… you have no deaths,” Mac Haddow, the kratom industry’s chief lobbyist, said, referring to a study conducted on mice. “The safety profile of kratom is very safe.”
During a 10-month investigation, Courthouse News found eight fatalities in which medical examiners listed mitragynine — the main psychoactive element in kratom — as the sole cause of death. Six of the cases have spurred lawsuits against kratom sellers. Two resulted in settlements, and four are ongoing.