Though the federal Drug Enforcement Administration has considered kratom a “drug of concern” for some time, state governments have led the charge in criminalizing the East Asian herb.
In 2015, DEA press officer Barbara Carreno called kratom “novel” when she told Lagniappe the drug wasn’t regulated on the federal level. For the the possession or sale of a drug to be illegal on the federal level, Congress has to vote for its inclusion in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.
“You don’t want the government just willy-nilly saying, ‘you can’t have this,’” Carreno said. “We have to do an analysis that shows not only that it’s a problematic substance, but that it’s a significant enough problem to take off the market. We do that through emergency room visits, recorded overdoses, people in rehab — things like that.”
While the burden to federally criminalize a substance is high, Carreno said the same isn’t true on the state level, and that’s led some states to be “more aggressive when it comes to controlling things.”
“Their legislatures could just vote for something,” she said.
Alabama’s legislature did just that when it voted to criminalize the possession, sale and manufacture of kratom earlier this month in the waning hours of the regular legislative session.Indigenous to Thailand, kratom is not an opiate itself but has been shown to produce similar effects by binding to opioid receptors in the human body. Recently, stores across the state have been legally selling powders, pills and drinks containing kratom or its alkaloid derivatives, mitragynine and hydroxymitragynine.
However, Senate Bill 226 — sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) — passed the Legislature in the final minutes of 2016’s regular session, paving the way for kratom to be added to the state’s list of controlled substances.
Though the change took effect the moment the bill was signed by Gov. Robert Bentley on May 10, law enforcement officials in Mobile have tried to give store owners “a reasonable amount of time” to adjust to the change.
“What was being sold in our convenience stores and in local businesses yesterday is now against the law today,” Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich said last week. “The community needs to understand these are now controlled substances, and they need to be removed from the shelves of any business that is selling them.”
According to Rich, at low doses kratom causes increased alertness and physical energy, while higher doses can produce sedative effects similar to morphine and other prescribed painkillers.
She added that because kratom “affects the brain at the opioid receptors,” it causes “documented opioid effects and major addiction issues.”
Kratom’s place on the list of controlled substances puts it in the same category with cocaine and methamphetamine, and as of May 10 possession of the plant or products containing its derivatives is considered a felony.
All “serious crimes,” Rich said even the act of packaging kratom leaves for distribution could result in a manufacturing charge, which carries a potential of 10 to 99 years in prison.
The Mobile Police Department and the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office have already begun enforcing the new law, sweeping gas stations and other shops to confiscate any remaining products at the owner’s’ expense.
According to Virginia Guy, executive director of the Drug Education Council, kratom has been around a long time but became widely used when drinks containing the herb began popping up at corner gas stations throughout Mobile County and were being packaged similarly to 5-Hour Energy shots. She said the packaging, legality and the volume of available kratom products made them easily accessible for children and teenagers.
“Our agency’s main goal is to protect children in our community,” Guy said. “So, we’ve been talking for a little while about the dangers of children using these products — particularly with kratom.”
While some kratom products are labeled for persons 18 or older, those age limits were unenforceable because no laws existed to govern their sale. There were some failed attempts at “a compromise” by supporters who hoped lawmakers would be content regulating the sale of kratom instead of criminalizing its possession altogether.The American Kratom Association has lobbied for similar efforts in several states, and founder Susan Ash was quick to question the way SB 226 was pushed through in the last minute of Alabama’s regular session — passing at 11:59 p.m. in a session scheduled to end at midnight.
“We were told going in that this was a done deal. Every trick in the Alabama Legislature’s book was played on the forces that were trying for a compromise bill, but none were given time or discussion,” Ash said. “So now, the state of Alabama will have reason to put more of their hard-working voters in prison, husbands will lose their active wives, children will lose the companionship and guidance of their mothers and fathers as more formerly sober citizens are forced by pain to return to opioid drugs.”
However, Ash did acknowledge that even with age advisories some of companies pushing more marketable kratom products had “failed miserably” at ensuring those products weren’t finding their way to children under the age of 18.
Rich, on the other hand, doesn’t think the age matters. She described kratom as a dangerous drug because of its addictiveness and the false impression its previous legal status caused.
According to Rich, many people —including teenagers — saw it being “sold legally and lawfully in their stores” and assumed it wasn’t dangerous.
“We hear that from so many young people, but there are very dangerous addictive substances,” she added. “People were going in the store to buy a Coke or a muffin, and there it was.”