Never Heard of Kratom? Trust Us, You Will.

By Dirk Hanson 07/06/11

A plant from Thailand with opiate-like properties is the latest "designer drug" speeding its way through America.

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A legal opiate?
Photo via k2incense

A funny thing happened last week at the FA Cup Final English football match in Kuala Lumpur: A fan tried to smuggle in something described in the press as “Air Ketum.” It turns out that Air Ketum is a liquid version of a plant drug called Kratom, and that Malaysian kids buy Air Ketum from street vendors. But it was a new one on us. Native to Thailand and Malaysia, where the leaves are often chewed, smoked, or brewed into tea, Kratom is a psychoactive tree powered by an active ingredient called mitragynine—a substance capable of partially activating the mu- and delta-opioid receptors. Kratom serves as a weak opium, but it also has stimulant properties, like cocaine. Kratom is nature’s speedball.

It has already been banned in Thailand, where traffickers can receive a two-year jail sentence. So imagine our astonishment when we discovered that Kratom is casually and legally for sale in Spearfish, South Dakota—and presumably a lot of other places, too. Purple Sticky Kratom, sold on the shelf where the Bath Salts used to be, right next to the newer, not-yet-illegal versions of Spice and K2 marijuana substitutes. Online, too. Detective Darin Pedneau of the Spearfish Police Department told the Black Hills Pioneer: “This, in my opinion, is a legal opiate.” Naturally, Kratom doesn’t show up in any current drug testing protocol. Kratom is sold as a plant intended to be ground up and brewed as tea.

As with most drugs that suddenly appear in the public eye, Kratom has been around for a while, especially in the United Kingdom, where exotic new designer drugs often first appear. Six months ago, the DEA’s Office of Diversion Control put out a “Drugs and Chemicals of Concern” bulletin to alert health officials to the possibility of Kratom turning up. And the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services recently sent out its own bulletin on Kratom abuse, which said in part: “Kratom has been around for nearly 10 years, but only in the last year or two has it attracted widespread attention. Common names include Kratom, Ketum, Kakuam, Ithang and Thom.” By itself, Kratom is not especially dangerous, and rarely lethal. Side effects typically include nausea, vomiting, and prolonged sleep. But a little more digging brought to light a coroner’s report in which an herbal tea called Kratom was found, along with other drugs, in an autoposy of a 21-year old Irish man who died of respiratory complications at a hospital in Dublin. “People need to be aware of the potential results of using Kratom tea, especially with other medications,” the coroner told the Irish Times. No solid proof here, but any herbal product that connects seriously with opiate receptors in the central nervous system is one to watch.

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]

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