Healing Plant, Or Addictive Substance?: Southeast Asia’s Kratom Leaf Draws Controversy

Throughout the course of botanical history, there have been two distinct types of people: those who want to ingest plants for their medicinal and psychoactive properties, and those who want to make those plants illegal. Most recently, the debate has centered on the Southeast Asian leaf Kratom, a natural painkiller ingested to treat chronic illness. But the plant, which comes from a tropical evergreen tree, also has several recreational benefits.

In low doses Kratom can act as a stimulant. At high doses it can act as a sedative, similar to a narcotic. The substance, which many say is more “subtle” than marijuana, is banned by the military and is illegal in six states. In 2014, the FDA began seizing Kratom coming into the U.S., and in 2016 the DEA announced its intentions to regulate the plant, receiving protest from users. Still, many enjoy its effects, often mixing the soluble ground powder in chocolate milk shakes, grapefruit juice or tea, while others take it in pill form.

“I first tried it when I was kicking heroin,” says Molly, a 40-year-old writer and sex workers’ rights advocate living in New York City, who buys Kratom from a local smoke shop. “It was something to mitigate some of the symptoms of withdrawals. I have Fibromyalgia and Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (chronic fatigue syndrome) and was taking benzos and heroin to combat some of the pain associated with these chronic illnesses. I take the Kratom the same way.”

“…When I first took it, I felt a lot of motivation in the first two hours. After that, I kind of got sleepy and relaxed.”

But others, like Vermont’s Sophia, a 22-year-old clinical herbalist student training to work as a physician in community clinics, take the drug for the body high and stimulation. And while Kratom is currently mostly legal, Sophia says the pharmaceutical industry is working to change this, likely because the leaf infringes on all-powerful profit margins.

“Given that it’s an alternative to pharmaceuticals,” she explains, “and people usually take it when they’re trying to get off pain meds, it’s a threat to big pharma. It should be more accessible. I know a lot of people who have chronic pain and use it on the regular.” Sophia says she began using Kratom, which usually tastes like green tea or seaweed, recreationally.

“I was curious about it,” she admits. “For some, it’s more of a pain killing sedative, for others it gives them more energy, boost and focus. When I first took it, I felt a lot of motivation in the first two hours. After that, I kind of got sleepy and relaxed.”

During those productive hours, Sophia says she completed errands and chores around the house like gardening, homework and “bureaucratic” tasks. But the main risk of the plant, which users feel the effects of in about 5-15 minutes, is that people can develop a tolerance to the plant rather easily. As a result, the herbalist-in-training recommends those interested start slowly and cautiously.

“It’s important that people know it’s a powerful plant,” she explains. “I definitely think it’s easy to become dependent on. I’m not a very addictive person and as I started to take Kratom, I kind of wanted to take it every day. Your tolerance increases really fast. I do feel like it’s been very useful for me, but I don’t think I can make any generalizations about its usefulness for others.”

While still new to America, Kratom may continue to maintain its mysterious status if regulations on the drug increase. The plant could potentially help those going through withdrawals or dealing with chronic illness; it could be consumed in dangerous amounts by those unaware of the plant’s addictive qualities. The future of Kratom is unclear, but further study is necessary to understand this natural painkiller.

Jacob Uitti

Jake Uitti is a Seattle-based writer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, Seattle Times, Alaska Airlines Magazine and others. These days, he's surprised at how often he wears V-neck t-shirts. 

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