NEW YORK — Members of the American Kratom Association vowed to fight any ban on the herbal supplement that’s been linked to 36 deaths nationwide, and — so far— they’ve succeeded.
But debate is reaching fever pitch about the product, which comes from a plant in southeast Asia and is sold over the counter in capsule, liquid or powder form.
“We believe it has addictive qualities,” said Scott Gottlieb, Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, shortly after the agency issued a public health warning ten days ago. “And it’s also being used by people who have addiction to opioids."
The people who swear by kratom have said they use it for all different reasons.
Some insisted it treated their back pain. Others said it eased anxiety or depression. Dozens of testimonials are turning up online from people who declared it eased their withdrawal symptoms from opioids like prescription painkillers, heroin or methadone.
“This is stuff that can help with your withdrawals,” said one man on YouTube.
After doing research, PIX11 was surprised to learn about the tragic death of Police Sergeant Matthew Dana of Tupper Lake, New York.
The Franklin County Coroner Shawn Stuart said the only substance found in Dana’s system was a high level of kratom. He believes it caused the hemorrhagic pulmonary edema that Dana died of. The edema brought blood and other fluid into Dana’s lungs.
Advocates for kratom don’t buy the coroner’s findings and have suggested the federal Drug Enforcement Administration is trying to blame kratom for the death so the DEA can ban it.
Dana’s friends said he used to be a bodybuilder and noted YouTube sites have advocated for kratom to boost energy.
The friends told NewYorkUpstate.com that Sergeant Dana had been making the powdered Red Vein Maeng Da brand of kratom into a paste and eating it.
Six states already bar the sale of kratom in shops, but New York and 42 other states allow it over the counter. You can find it in gas stations, head shops and some kava cafes.
Advocates point out the supplement is in the coffee family. In small doses, it serves as a stimulant, a “pick me up.” In large doses, kratom can have sedative qualities.
Steven Chassman, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (LICADD) is very concerned about clients trying to rely on kratom to deal with opioid withdrawal.
“Opioid dependence is a psychiatric disturbance,” Chassman said. “When it comes to medical stabilization, you do not get supplements that are bought in gas stations or head shops across Long Island. They are being misinformed that this is going to help them on the road to recovery, when—in fact—oftentimes we’re seeing that they’re just switching addictions.”
While the FDA is trying to stop the importing of kratom at international mail facilities, a study done at the University of Mississippi had found that “the compounds in kratom aren’t particularly potent opioids like prescription opioids, morphine or fentanyl.”
The DEA still wants to place kratom on a Schedule 1 list of illegal drugs, in the same category as heroin.
Steve Chassman said, “What it does is mirror the effects of opiate-like drugs. When it’s taken in larger quantities, it releases certain levels of dopamine.”
Consumers can buy a bag of 90 Kratom capsules for $30 at many head and vape shops around New York City and Long Island. One brand we found was marketed under the name “Pain Out.”
The shops also sell small bottles of liquid kratom for $20, called shots.
After public protests in 2016, when the DEA proposed a ban on kratom, 62 members of Congress signed a letter calling for more study and dialogue on the issue, after members of the American Kratom Association held a protest outside the White House.