If only temporarily, an interest from Congress has delayed a Drug Enforcement Administration plan to reclassify kratom — a leaf outlawed in Alabama earlier this year — as a schedule 1 controlled substance across the country.
On Aug. 31, the DEA gave a 30-day notice in the U.S. Federal Register of its intent, which would place kratom in the DEA’s most restrictive classification reserved for drugs with “no known medical value and a high probability of addiction.”
For the change to become permanent, Congress would have to vote for kratom to be included in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, but the DEA can do an “emergency rescheduling” for up to two years without congressional approval if it considers a drug an “imminent threat.”While kratom isn’t an opiate itself, it has been shown to produce similar effects because its alkaloids bind to opioid receptors in the human brain. It’s those effects the DEA says have popularized its use in the U.S.
However, word of the proposed ban quickly caused a surge of backlash from the “kratom community,” as thousands of people across the country began signing petitions and holding peaceful protests in places like Washington D.C., Austin and Atlanta to voice opposition to the unilateral reclassification.
While the change to a schedule 1 substance will be a stark contrast to kratom’s current legal status in most states, DEA spokesman Rusty Payne told Lagniappe the administration and federal agencies like the Food and Drug Administration would continue to evaluate the plant and uses during the two-year period.
“We’re asked for an eight-factor analysis from the FDA. They’ll continue to research it, and we’ll continue to determine whether it should be permanently controlled,” Payne said. “Though, If FDA comes to us and says we think this could be a medicine, the schedule will be lowered. Right now, though, there is no widely-accepted medical use for kratom in the United States — science just hasn’t given us that.”
While a few in the scientific community have suggested kratom could serve as a less addictive form of pain management, most sides on the issue agree the plant and its effects merit further scientific analysis.
Five states, including Alabama, have made kratom a controlled substance on the state level in recent, though other state legislatures have voted down similar measures. One of the most involved lobbying groups that advocated for kratom in those states is the same nonprofit leading the opposition to the DEA’s plan — the American Kratom Association (AKA).
With thousands of members all over the country, including some in Mobile, AKA advocates for the legal use of kratom by adults as a natural alternative for pain management and as a treatment for opioid dependence and withdrawal.
One former user, who asked to be identified by his first name because of his job, said he would take two capsules of kratom powder with his morning coffee to manage back pain he had previously treated with legal prescription painkillers.
“I took the meds as prescribed for several months and eventually developed a tolerance and dependence for them,” Blake wrote in an email. “Long story short, kratom helped me not only get off of the opiate meds but also helped me live and work a normal life.”
Blake is a resident of Mobile, and since Alabama outlawed kratom in May, he said he’s once again been dealing back pain. However, he’s intentionally tried to avoid using prescription opiates.
Instead, Blake said he has traveled to across the state line to Mississippi “a couple times when the pain was just too much,” and he’s not alone.Even though gas stations less than an hour from Mobile sell kratom in plain view, bringing it back across the state line is now considered a felony in Alabama.
That being said, the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office nor the Mobile Police Department have a recorded a single arrest for kratom possession or distribution since it was criminalized earlier this year. Throughout Alabama, only four arrests have shown up in statewide reports, and all but one of those were gas stations attendants who continued to sell kratom products after May 10.
For Blake, though, that level of risk still isn’t worth it.
“It has been a struggle talking myself out of going back to true opiates,” he added. “So far, I have been successful, but each day is a test of my will.”
However, for the past few days, kratom supporters in other states have been holding their breath as the plan to reschedule kratom federally seems to have been delayed…at least for the moment.
In recent weeks, several members of Congress have requested time for public input and scientific analysis. Specifically, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who penned a “dear colleague letter” passed through the Senate, asked for a public comment period along with “sufficient time for the DEA to outline its evidentiary standards to the Congress regarding the justification” for the ban.
A similar letter, drafted by Reps. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), was signed by 51 members of the House of Representatives, though neither was signed by elected officials from Alabama. Likewise, a Whitehouse.gov petition aimed at stopping the ban gained the 100,000 signatures it needed to merit a response from the Obama Administration in just eight days.
While the DEA has made no formal announcement about delaying the rescheduling, the Sept. 30 deadline for its implementation has come and gone — leaving some unsure about kratom’s future.
Though the AKA has said an announcement of a “modified public comment period” should be forthcoming, DEA public affairs officer Russ Baer recently told national publications that, despite the lack of a timetable, a reclassification of kratom is “not a matter of if, but when.”
In the meantime, organizations like AKA are raising legal and consulting funds through individual donations and preparing to take their fight to court if they have to.
“We’ve come a long way in such a short amount of time; the push back on the DEA from our Congressional allies and the media has been nothing short of phenomenal,” AKA founder Susan Ash said in a statement. “We have formed a team to execute our legal strategy should the DEA move forward with this unconstitutional action on kratom.”