UNITED STATES – Kratom is an innocuous medicinal plant, a drug, and herb used in religious ceremonies, or a killer, depending with whom you speak. A woman in Florida blames the drug for her son’s suicide; addiction recovery advocates say that it can be a useful harm-reduction tool; journey-workers believe that it’s good for relaxing the mind and aiding in trance work. Additionally, there are a growing number of people who find kratom to be an enjoyable intoxicant. They drink it rather than going to a traditional bar and ordering alcohol.The plant, which originates in southeast Asia and some islands of the South Pacific, has been used for centuries as a mild stimulant or pain reliever, as well as in religious ceremony. In the last decade, kratom has found popularity in Western countries, especially through kava bars. And, as a result, it has been followed by bans and laws limiting its availability.
Liz Johnson is the owner of Magus Books, a store serving the Pagan and magick-using communities in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The store sells kratom.
“As with all the herbs we sell it is supplied for the use that the person sees fit to use it for. Our intent is to provide magickal tools and resources and that herb, like all the other herbs, certainly falls into that category,” she said.
Johnson explained that one of the issues that creates problems for the herb is that there are different strains.
“Each of them have their own effects, each of them have their own purposes. This is one of those reasons for that regulation, a preponderance of people will have a typical reaction to a given strain. This doesn’t mean it will be your reaction to that strain, which is a typical thing with any herb,” she said.
There are a number of reactions that are considered to be standard, or what you would expect to see. However, since people each have their own unique body chemistry, there will always be instances where unexpected reactions occur, she further explained.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency attempted to add the plant to the list of Schedule 1 drugs, or those substances seen as having no medical benefit, including heroin, MDMA, LSD and marijuana. On August 31, the DEA announced their intentions to schedule kratom as such by the end of September 2016.
The August announcement lead to a massive public protest, after which the DEA spokesman Melvin Patterson admitted, “I have been with the DEA for 20 years and have never seen this level of public response,”as noted by the Los Angeles Times,
In fact, 51 members of Congress, across party lines submitted their own protests to the proposed legislation, which forced the DEA to backpedal and open up a another 6 week period for discussion. That will close on Dec. 1.
At that point, the DEA will decide whether to move forward with the ban or begin discussing alternatives.For Johnson and Magus Book, a ban would have some serious implications for business.
“We’ll lose those sales; we’ll lay people off; there will be cutting of hours. It’s not an insignificant percentage. It will impact the business to lose that particular herb. But, it would impact the business [also] to lose white sage. [Kratom] is our most popular herb, make no mistake. It will have the largest impact the loss of a single herb would have. But at the same time with the number of herbs we sell, any loss we would have a noticeable impact,” she said.
As a tool for journey work, Johnson said that if kratom were made illegal, most of those folks would move on to another alternative. However, if people are using kratom to maintain a regimen where they’re attempting to not use opiates or synthetic opiates, there aren’t a lot of alternatives. Johnson said, “For the people who come looking to replace a physical pain reliever (that) they’ve become addicted to, I don’t have a great replacement for that. I have a protocol as an herbalist to help with the detox.”
Justin Kunzelman is the co-founder and director of Rebel Recovery, a nonprofit with several branches across the United States. He is based in South Florida.
“It could be used as a safer alternative replacement drug, but it depends on the individual. If an individual’s goal for harm-reduction is, ‘I don’t want to shoot heroin anymore,’ then our responsibility as a professional is to find the best way for them to do that. If it’s possible for them to do that in an abstinence-only setting then they should,” he said.
If they feel like kratom is a good alternative that could prevent them from being on heroin, then they should do that, he added.
“You also can’t tell people what their goals should and should not be and what they should believe. I don’t know that there’s really enough research to use it as a replacement therapy, but somebody that’s addicted is just looking to escape, could they use this to escape and use it as a replacement for heroin? Absolutely,” Kunzelman said.
Where he sees cause for concern is that it’s another drug and to people who suffer from addiction, trading one for another isn’t the ultimate goal.
“It has everything to do with the mindset behind using the drug,” he said. “Everything from caffeine, nicotine to kava, kratom, crack, heroin, it’s all going to set off the same cycle in their minds. It’s all gonna set off the same cycle in their lives.”
Kunzelman points to the openness of the internet as a likely source of fuel for the protests seen after attempting to ban kratom. The spread of information has lead to a lot of social change, including the attitudes of people who use kratom.
“I think a lot of them… understood the danger of putting another plant as a Schedule 1 narcotic and saying it had no value, while doing no research. […] Look at how many people could have been helped were we able to openly study marijuana in the 50’s. How many people’s lives could have been improved had we known then what we know now about CBD oil (cannabidiol, an extract of cannabis being studied for health benefits, including treatment of epilepsy)?” he said.
There’s a lot of potential research to be done with kratom, but having it as a Schedule 1 substance would prevent any of that from happening, Kunzelman said.
Liz Johnson feels that for Pagan or shamanic work, practioners should view the open access of plants and plant materials as a religious right.
“Every time we make a move to decide that we are not responsible enough as a society to handle these things, we take a step backwards evolutionarily, we take a step away from reaching those pinnacles of spirituality that we know create a better world,” she said.
As a recovery advocate and a person in recovery himself, Kunzelman sees the drug war as a failure, and the current heroin epidemic as a product of that.
“The last thing we want to do is add to that. Add one more thing to the list of things that we can kick in your door for, seize your home and your car,” he said.