DEA taking closer look at kratom
Kratom is currently on the DEA's Drugs of Concern list
By Kristin F. Dalton
Staten Island Advance, N.Y.
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — After being turned away by a number of Staten Island establishments, a smoke shop on Forest Avenue confirmed via phone that they had kratom in stock.
The smoke shop looked no different than the dozens of others scattered throughout the borough -- tobacco pipes, grinders, cigars and other smoking paraphernalia were displayed in glass cases throughout the store.
"Hi, I'm here for the kratom pills; we spoke on the phone earlier," the male employee behind the counter was told. He turned around and put a bottle of herbal oil on the counter.
The request for kratom was repeated. The employee then asked for identification.
"Are you a cop?" he asked, as he handed back the driver's license.
After telling the man that I was not law enforcement, he requested that I take my cell phone -- which I had in my hand -- and place it in my car and come back.
Upon my return, the man asked me to come behind the counter and into the store's backroom, where he went to a locked cabinet behind a curtain.
He removed a white bottle, handed it to me and asked me if that was what I was looking for.
Back in the front of the store, I paid $20 for the bottle of 20 capsules.
"Now that I know who you are, you can come back here and I'll sell it to you with no problem," he said, shaking my hand.
FOR SALE ACROSS THE ISLAND
Kratom is being sold at gas stations and delis acrosss the borough.
"People need to know this is out there. This is going to be the next big [drug]," warned one Staten Island resident who called the Advance.
She's worried that amid the opioid crisis on Staten Island, kratom is going to start claiming lives.
As of Sept. 6, there have been 67 suspected heroin and opioid overdose fatalities and 132 saves using naloxone, according to a spokesman for District Attorney Michael E. McMahon's office. The borough is on track to have more overdose deaths than 2016's total of 116.
Can kratom add more deaths to the total?
Used for years in Southeast Asia, Mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine, or kratom, is derived from the Mitragyna speciose tree and "is used for its ability to produce opioid-like effects and is often marketed as a legal alternative to controlled substances," according to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the compounds in the kratom leaves "interact with opioid receptors in the brain, producing sedation, pleasure, and decreased pain, especially when users consume large amounts of the plant."
SOME USE IT FOR PAIN MANAGMENT
Does it get you high?
One kratom user says no.
"When you take it, there's a noticeable relief [of pain]; it's not a high. I admit that I've indulged and partied and done my thing and I can tell you this is nowhere near a high. You might feel like you would if you took too much caffeine -- it's not a recreational high at all," Kyle Van Pelt explained.
Van Pelt, 26, says he has an "unhealthy disownment" with opioid painkillers and has found enormous relief taking kratom for his chronic pain.
Van Pelt sustained a back injury at the age of 16, and suffers from scoliosis and other back issues.
"[Kratom] is the only thing I've ever taken or tried that has made me completely forget about the pain and be able to function daily," Van Pelt said.
At most, he says he takes four .5g doses a day -- and that's on a bad pain day. He says that's still considered a small amount for a daily dose.
He's met other kratom users at expos and personally knows some who've used the plant to get off illegal opioids like heroin or pills like Percocet and Vicodin because it staves off painful withdrawal.
A number of websites detail ways to take the plant to help wean off of illegal substances, and then eventually wean off of kratom.
But that all depends on how much you take.
There are sites dedicated to instructing users on doses in order to feel high. It can range from a stimulant or, in higher amount, effects comparable to taking opioids.
One website lists a number of unpleasant side-effects like vomiting, sweating, itching, psychotic episodes, delusions and respiratory depression.
"Withdrawal effects of kratom are very similar to those of opiates like heroin or prescription painkillers," the Narconon website warns. "Since the drug is also addictive, one of the effects can include compulsive use of the drug despite the harm that is being done to one's mental state or life."
The possibility of abuse and what type of clientele it can bring are preventing some local businesses from selling kratom.
"It could be handled in the wrong way, like anything else, but we also know that kratom is capable of in good hands," said one local shop worker, who asked to remain anonymous.
She said people seek kratom after dental and other surgeries if they don't like taking painkillers and want a natural way to deal with pain and anxiety, she said.
WILL KRATOM BE ILLEGAL?
In August 2016, the DEA announced plans to place the active chemicals of the kratom plant -- Mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine -- into Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act "in order to avoid an imminent hazard to public safety."
"...Kratom has a high potential for abuse, has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and has lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision. These three factors constitute a Schedule I controlled substance according to the Controlled Substances Act passed by Congress in 1970," the DEA said in a statement.
The announcement drew outrage from kratom consumers who use the plant medicinally, saying the drug has helped them wean off opiates and others to manage chronic pain. The supporters asked the DEA to delay the ban while accepting public comments.
The agency then delayed the ban and took public input until Dec. 1. The agency also asked the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to conduct a medical and scientific evaluation.
Lyndsay Meyer, an FDA spokeswoman, said she could not speculate on a timeframe for the evaluation but did say that "it's being worked on."
Kratom is currently on the DEA's Drugs of Concern list, which includes substances that are not scheduled by the Controlled Substances Act but "pose risks to people who abuse them."
Van Pelt hopes that the DEA, FDA, and other "naysayers" take a serious look at the potential benefits of the plant, using himself as an example, instead of comparing it to opioids.
©2017 Staten Island Advance, N.Y.