By Pat Anson, Editor
Over 22,000 public comments – a record number on any issue -- have been posted on a government website taking comments on a threatened federal ban on the herbal supplement kratom. The final number is likely to be even higher once all the comments are recorded.
The vast majority of commenters oppose plans by the Drug Enforcement Administration for the emergency scheduling of two ingredients in kratom as Schedule I controlled substances, a move that would make the sale and possession of the herb a felony.
Thursday, December 1 was the last day that public comments were accepted at Regulations.gov on the kratom ban. The number of kratom comments is over five times the number who commented on the controversial opioid prescribing guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this year.
“I think the quality of the comments and the quantity of the comments show that kratom really does have potential and that the three to five million people that are consuming kratom would suffer greatly if it becomes a Schedule I controlled substance,” Susan Ash, founder of the American Kratom Association, told Pain News Network.
Ash started using kratom several years ago to help fight opioid addiction. Many others use it to treat their chronic pain, anxiety and depression.
“If Kratom is banned by the DEA my quality of life will decrease tremendously,” wrote a 62-year old veteran who started using kratom four years ago as an alternative to anti-anxiety medication. “My life was out of control with benzodiazepines. With kratom, I can live a somewhat anxiety-free life and not have all the negative side effects that come with benzodiazepines.”
“The VA prescribes lots of pain medication that’s very addictive. I have since gone off the medication and switched to kratom,” wrote Brandon Lang, another military veteran. “The effect as far as pain relief is comparable, but the addictive nature and the ‘high’ is nearly nonexistent. I feel much better knowing pain relief is available and affordable. I am now free and clear of narcotics.”
“Kratom is nowhere near as dangerous as alcohol, tobacco, acetaminophen, aspirin, and countless other things which are widely available. It makes absolutely no sense to ban kratom,” said John Miller.
“I am a former addict and know others who suffer from addiction including alcoholism,” wrote Chris Simmons. “In my experience kratom significantly reduces cravings while allowing people to go about their day as normally as possible. Please keep this legal.”
One of the comments opposing the ban came from a retired deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department.
“Kratom has been used safely by millions of people in the U.S., just like marijuana was used safely prior to its prohibition. And, just like marijuana, kratom has many medicinal benefits that scheduling would deny to those who benefit from its use. Its prohibition would only drive thousands more to opiate use,” wrote Stephen Downing, who has called for the legalization of many illicit drugs.
“There is no evidence to support prohibition of this plant. Putting it on the Controlled Substances Schedule will serve no useful purpose other than the continued survival of a massive and harmful out-of-control government bureaucracy.”
Only a small minority of commenters support a ban on kratom.
“Adding an untested and unregulated substance such as kratom to our food supply without the application of longstanding federal rules and guidelines would not only be illegal, it could likely be dangerous, leading to serious unintended consequences as our nation struggles with the crisis of opioid addiction,” wrote Daniel Fabricant, PhD, a former FDA official who is now CEO and Executive Director of the Natural Products Association (NPA), a trade association that represents the food and dietary supplement industry.
“NPA strongly urges DEA and FDA to take appropriate legal action to ensure that American consumers are protected from an unknown and unregulated botanical ingredient whose use could have widespread and unintended negative consequences for public health and safety.”
Fabricant’s comments to the DEA rely primarily on anecdotal reports that kratom might be harmful or have a narcotic effect. Although kratom leaves have been used for centuries as a natural remedy in southeast Asia, it is relatively new in the United States, and there have been few clinical studies on its safety and efficacy.
In a new analysis of existing studies funded by the American Kratom Association, Jack Henningfield, PhD, said kratom was no more dangerous than many other herbal supplements, such as St. John’s Wort, lavender, kava and hops.
"For both abuse potential and dependence liability, kratom's profile is comparable to or lower than that of unscheduled substances such as caffeine, nicotine-containing smoking cessation products, dextromethorphan, and many antihistamines, antidepressants, and other substances sold directly to consumers,” said Henningfield, who is a former chief of research at the National Institute on Drug Abuse and is currently an adjunct professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
What happens now with the threatened ban is not clear. The DEA has asked for a new analysis of kratom from the Food and Drug Administration, which initially recommended that the herb be made a controlled substance. The new analysis has yet to be released publicly.
It appears likely that a final decision on kratom will be left to the incoming Trump administration, and there are conflicting signs where that may lead. Trump’s nominee as Attorney General, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, has been a longtime critic of marijuana legalization. If confirmed by the Senate, Sessions will oversee the DEA.
Trump’s nominee as Secretary of Health and Humans Services, Georgia Rep. Tom Price, will oversee both the CDC and FDA if he is confirmed. Price is a noted Tea Party member and longtime critic of Obamacare, who wants a more free market approach to healthcare that allows patients to make their own decisions.
Susan Ash is hopeful that these dueling interests will decide that kratom is best left alone as a dietary supplement.
“I’m nearly 100% confident that they are not going to emergency schedule this again,” she told PNN. “I truly believe that science is going to be on our side. How long it is going to take for that science is my concern.”