FDA Report Calls Kratom an Opioid

By Pat Anson, Editor

The herbal supplement kratom contains opioids and should not be used to treat any medical condition, according to a new analysis by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The report seems likely to trigger a renewed effort to classify kratom as an illegal Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act.

“Kratom should not be used to treat medical conditions, nor should it be used as an alternative to prescription opioids. There is no evidence to indicate that kratom is safe or effective for any medical use. And claiming that kratom is benign because it’s ‘just a plant’ is shortsighted and dangerous,” said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, in a lengthy statement.

“It’s an opioid that’s associated with novel risks because of the variability in how it’s being formulated, sold and used recreationally and by those who are seeking to self-medicate for pain or who use kratom to treat opioid withdrawal symptoms.”

Kratom comes from the leaves of a tree that grows in southeast Asia, where it has been used for centuries for its medicinal properties.  Millions of Americans have discovered kratom in recent years, using it to treat chronic pain, anxiety, depression, and addiction.

In 2016, the Drug Enforcement Administration attempted to list two of kratom’s active ingredients as Schedule I substances. The DEA suspended its plan after a public outcry, and said it would wait for a scheduling recommendation and medical evaluation of kratom from the FDA.

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The new report may prompt the DEA to try again.  In a computer analysis using what the FDA calls Public Health Assessment via Structural Evaluation (PHASE) methodology, FDA researchers identified 25 chemical compounds in kratom that share structural similarities with opioid analgesics such as morphine. Like painkillers, the substances bind to mu-opioid receptors in the brain and – according to the computer models -- act the same way as opioids.

“The data from the PHASE model shows us that kratom compounds are predicted to affect the body just like opioids. Based on the scientific information in the literature and further supported by our computational modeling and the reports of its adverse effects in humans, we feel confident in calling compounds found in kratom, opioids,” Gottlieb said.

FDA Analysis Called ‘Junk Science'

Critics of the FDA analysis say it contains numerous errors and signs of confirmation bias.

"The failure of the FDA to justify its attempt to schedule kratom using traditional and well-accepted scientific methods has apparently driven the FDA to move into the world of junk science.  Using computer modeling is very susceptible to bias in the assumptions the are built into the computer algorithms.  In short, the old adage of 'garbage in – garbage out' applies to such dramatic testing standards," said Dave Herman, chairman of the American Kratom Association (AKA), a pro-kratom consumer group.

In addition to its analysis, the FDA released a detailed report on 36 deaths associated with kratom over the past several years. The agency admits all but one of the overdose deaths involved other drugs and “could not be fully assessed.” There was only one death involving a person who had no prior opioid use.  

“We’re continuing to investigate this report, but the information we have so far reinforces our concerns about the use of kratom. In addition, a few assessable cases with fatal outcomes raise concern that kratom is being used in combination with other drugs that affect the brain, including illicit drugs, prescription opioids, benzodiazepines and over-the-counter medications, like the anti-diarrheal medicine, loperamide,” Gottlieb said.

"It is more of the same useless rhetoric from FDA," says Jane Babin, a molecular biologist who authored a report last year for the AKA that discredited many of the reports linking overdoses to kratom.

"Bottom line:  36 deaths over 3, 5, 7 or more years that they can't prove were caused by kratom, versus 16,000 deaths from killer street opioids," Babin wrote in an email. 

In a survey of 6,150 kratom users by Pain News Network and the AKA, most reported they used kratom as a treatment for chronic pain, depression, anxiety or addiction. Many say the herb is safe, effective and has literally saved their lives

“Kratom is the one thing that has kept me from using opiates and other illegal substances. I've been able to stay clean for 3 years now. It's given me my life back,” one survey respondent wrote.

“Kratom is the only reason I was finally able to end my addiction to hydrocodone. It is nowhere near as potent as hydrocodone, and you can't overdose” said another.

“I've had several friends who have died from heroin overdose. If they knew about kratom they may still be alive today,” wrote another kratom user.

One of the dilemmas faced by the FDA and DEA is that kratom products are currently classified as dietary supplements, and there are few regulatory standards applied to their importation or ingredients. The only requirement for kratom vendors is that they don't make unsubstantiated health claims. Classifying kratom as a Schedule I controlled substance would radically change that, making it a felony to possess or sell kratom, and likely creating an underground black market for the herb.