Does Kratom Do More Harm Than Good for Recovering Addicts?

By McCarton Ackerman 01/05/16

Some experts say the drug being marketed as a recovery aid can lead users back to heroin.

Photo via Shutterstock

A growing number of addicts have turned to the kratom leaf to kick their drug dependence, but some have found that they become addicted to the kratom itself.

Kratom comes from evergreen trees in the coffee family native to Southeast Asia and is categorized as a botanic dietary supplement. Some tout it as a miracle drug that's able to relieve depression, anxiety and pain. But substance abuse experts are becoming concerned that it’s sold as a way to help overcome addiction despite being addictive itself. Kratom has also been linked to respiratory depression and seizures, while some deaths have occurred in the US when the drug was laced with morphine or hydrocodone.

“Recreationally or to self-treat opioid dependence, beware—potentially you’re at just as much risk” as with an opiate, said Dr. Edward W. Boyer, a professor of emergency medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Robert Waina of South Florida learned this the hard way. After taking kratom three years ago, he found that despite a comparatively mild high, he couldn’t stop ordering bottles. An attempt to quit sparked such severe withdrawal symptoms that he went into rehab for kratom on three different occasions before finally being able to maintain sobriety.

“If I’m taking it, as far as I’m concerned, I’m not clean,” he said.

Though the Food and Drug Administration banned the import of kratom into the US in 2014, it’s still routinely smuggled in from Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries. But despite the ban, the FDA can’t restrict the sale of it unless manufacturers falsely claim it treats a medical condition or it’s proven unsafe. The Drug Enforcement Administration lists kratom as a “drug of concern” but not a controlled substance.

Several individual states have taken separate action against kratom. Indiana, Tennessee, Wyoming and Vermont have banned it outright, while states including New Jersey and Florida have set aside similar bills until more information is revealed about the health risks of kratom.

But despite the potential risks, some addicts swear by the drug as a tool to aid in their recovery. Virginia native Susan Ash said she successfully used kratom to overcome an addiction to prescription painkillers and now uses a small amount daily to address chronic pain and depression. She founded the American Kratom Association in 2015, which works to lobby against state bills that seek to ban the substance.

“We know from all our experiences that kratom has the potential to be a wonderful medicine,” said Ash. “We’re all experiencing that it’s changing our lives.”

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.