Kratom, which comes from a Southeast Asian plant called Mitragyna speciosa, has been used for centuries to treat pain, anxiety and other afflictions. Over the last few years, recovering heroin addicts have ingested kratom because the drug hits some of the same brain receptors other opioids would. Basically, Kratom gives the user a more subdued high without the risks associated with opioids, like addiction.
Needless to say, the DEA isn't pleased.
"Health risks found in kratom abusers include hepatotoxicity, psychosis, seizure, weight loss, insomnia, tachycardia, vomiting, poor concentration, hallucinations, and death," the organization wrote in an August 30 press release. "DEA is aware of 15 kratom-related deaths between 2014 and 2016."
Despite the fact that these deaths could have been caused by other substances ingested alongside kratom, the DEA is still making it a Schedule I drug. This puts the drug in the same category as heroin, LSD, and of course, the deadly marijuana (we all know how well that ban is going).
Conspicuously left off the banned substances list is caffeinated drinks and alcohol, both of which have killed more people than kratom allegedly has. Not to mention, more people die from pharmaceutical drugs like Oxycontin than this natural remedy.
"It makes no sense for the DEA to still be left in charge of federal decisions involving scientific research and medical practice, especially when its successive directors have systematically abused their discretionary powers in this area," Alternet's Jag Davies wrote. "Responsibility for deciding drug classifications and public health policies should be completely removed from the DEA and transferred to a health or science agency."
Many kratom enthusiasts are fighting to keep the drug off the DEA's list. The American Kratom Association's White House petition to halt the ban has exceeded its goal of 100,000 signatures, but the backlash might not be strong enough to prevent the DEA from following through with their plans.
While (currently) legal in many states, kratom has typically been sold through less mainstream channels, like head shops.
As a result, there's not much information on how widespread kratom use is in America. But we do know that many who use it say their lives depend on it.
Revelist spoke to three women about how kratom has changed their lives for the better, and what they'll do if it's banned.
Andrea Marocco, 26, North Carolina
Marocco told Revelist she started drinking kratom at a local coffee shop in Asheville, NC. In addition to alleviating minor pains and PMS symptoms, she said its kept her from abusing prescription anxiety pills (benzos), which she'd been "dependent" on for four years.
"I had been taking benzos about four years," Marocco said. "I had to go into detox to get off them cause the withdrawals were so severe."
"I would have seizures and not even know it. I didn't believe my boyfriend when he told me I had one."
Friends at a local coffee shop introduced her to kratom, which she now takes daily with no side effects. Marocco is most concerned about how people who, like her, rely on kratom will react once it's banned.
"I know so many people that have gotten away from their dependencies on dangerous drugs , both street and prescription, because of kratom," she told Revelist. "I think it's all just the DEA in bed with pharmaceutical companies. They see it as a threat."
She said she might go back to benzos if other natural remedies don't work.
"My heart is really breaking over this for so many people. I'm in total shock."
"A Schedule 1 drug? It's like a slap in the face."
Meghan Leber, 24, Washington
Before she found kratom, Leber battled with painkiller and alcohol abuse.
"I was prescribed Vicodin after a medical procedure when I was 18," she told Revelist.
"I took it for about three weeks as it was prescribed. Once my prescription ran out and I didn't have it anymore, I felt terrible and I started looking for pain pills through friends and acquaintances. I started taking Tramadol and Percocet recreationally.
I would pretty much just spend my time looking for pills so I wouldn't be sick. They didn't even make me feel good anymore — I just needed them to feel normal."
About a year ago, a friend introduced Leber to kratom, which helped her quit drugs and alcohol in just three weeks.
"Kratom has helped me kick a drug and alcohol addiction and feel good enough to function on a day to day basis without even thinking about seeking out drugs," she said.
"It gave me my life back."
Now, Leber worries about the people who won't have access to the treatment she did.
"I believe that people who use kratom are going to go back to heroin and other opiates," she told Revelist. "It makes me sick to think about it being made illegal."
"Sarah," 35, Ohio
This married mother of three told Revelist that kratom has been more effective in treating her anxiety than Xanax.
"Unmedicated, I never wanted to leave my house for fear of a panic attack," she said. "On kratom, I feel like myself, I don't fear leaving my house and it allows just enough anxiety to not do stupid, jeopardizing things."
She said she won't go back on prescribed meds, no matter what — and she's skeptical about the DEA's motives for the ban.
"I don't get high from it, so I don't see [the DEA's] motive," she told Revelist. "I feel more and more like a conspiracy theorist, the more news we get about big pharma."
"I don't understand how they even try and use the numbers they do in comparison of the prescribed meds and deaths. It's an insult to all of our intelligence."
The DEA plans to make kratom a schedule I drug this month.
Maybe it's time to take a good, hard look at who's "winning" the war on drugs, because the average American is losing.
Revelist has reached out to the American Kratom Association for comment.
Main image: iStock/Artem_Furman