Kratom Cited As An 'Emerging Public Health Threat' By CDC

By Kelly Burch 08/04/16

Kratom, a natural pain reliever, remains unregulated and legal in all but six US states. 

Kratom Cited As An 'Emerging Public Health Threat' By CDC

In the desperation to find alternatives to opioids, either for pain relief or for people struggling with addiction, many Americans are turning to kratom—a deciduous evergreen native to Southeast Asia—as a natural opioid substitute. 

However, in this case, natural does not mean safe, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which issued a report on July 29 warning of the dangers of kratom. According to the report, the plant is considered an "emerging drug of abuse" by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which can cause side effects including psychosis, seizures and death. Although the usage of kratom is still relatively small, calls to poison control around the U.S. about the drug rose 10 times between 2010 and 2015, according to the report, and at least one death was attributed to the plant during that time. (However, that individual was exposed to anticonvulsant and antidepressant medication as well—not only kratom.)

Kratom is used to treat an array of conditions including chronic pain, fibromyalgia and even opioid withdrawals. Because it is not regulated by the FDA, kratom is easily accessible online. It can be brewed, chewed, smoked or swallowed in capsules, and can have a stimulant effect. However, it can also cause some unpleasant side effects including rapid heart rate, agitation, nausea and high blood pressure.

The drug is not illegal or regulated in the United States. It's only banned in six states: Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Indiana. (According to American Kratom, New York and North Carolina are also considering a ban.) Other countries, including Australia, Thailand, Malaysia and Burma have also banned the drug, according to Forbes

Although the government has taken a strong stance on kratom, some professionals feel there is simply not enough data to decide whether the plant should be banned, or whether it has potential medical usage. 

"So, are they banning a substance that has potential clinical utility? Possibly. Are they banning a substance that has profound risk to people? Possibly. I think what I would prefer is to see somebody not ban it but at least do some research to see how bad the risk is or how good the benefit is,” Dr. Ed Boyer, a professor of emergency medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, who has studied kratom, told CNN

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.