It’s been used traditionally as both a medicine and a textile. It’s reportedly helpful for treating drug addiction, and its consumption has never resulted in a documented death from toxic overdose. But the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) considers it a dangerous drug with no medical value.
No, this isn’t about Cannabis. This is about the leaves of a native Southeast Asian tree commonly known as “Kratom.” Its official botanical name is Mitragyna speciosa, and it’s the only natural source of opioid alkaloids other than the poppy plant.
Mitragyna is a small genus in the Rubiaceace family, which includes coffee. Like coffee, Kratom acts as a mild stimulant, an invigorating energy supplement, but only in low doses. At higher doses, it causes a narcotic-like effect and functions as an opiate substitute.
Smoked, chewed or steeped in tea, Kratom has a long history as a folk remedy for diarrhea, muscle pain, fever, coughing, hypertension, fatigue, depression, and other ailments. In modern times it has been used to treat opiate withdrawal, anxiety, chronic pain, and to boost the endurance of manual laborers. Despite its proscribed status in several countries, Kratom is still consumed socially during community gatherings in the Asian tropics.
The unauthorized use of this herb has spread to Western societies in recent years, much to the chagrin of the DEA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officials who view Kratom as a threat to public health. On August 25, 2016, the DEA announced its intention to add Kratom to the list of illegal Schedule I drugs. While this designation, for the moment, is temporary, in all likelihood it will become a permanent ban in the months ahead. (A false story on a bogus “Boston Tribune” website claimed that public protests forced the DEA to reverse course and suspend the scheduled ban.)
Not your typical painkiller
At least 25 alkaloids have been isolated from Kratom leaves. Three of these compounds directly activate opiate receptors. Mitragynine (MG), the dominant indole alkaloid found in Kratom, is responsible for much of Kratom’s analgesic activity. MG’s painkilling potency is equal to codeine. Japanese researchers reported in 2004 that MG accounted for 66 percent of a crude Kratom extract and six percent of plant material by dry weight.