By Pat Anson, PNN Editor
A new analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists the herbal supplement kratom as the cause of death in at least 91 overdoses in the U.S. from 2016 to 2017. Multiple substances were involved in the vast majority of those cases, with over half of the deaths also linked to fentanyl, a synthetic and potent opioid that has become a scourge on the black market.
Kratom comes from the leaves of a tree that grows in southeast Asia, where it has been used for centuries as a natural stimulant and pain reliever. In recent years kratom has grown in popularity in the U.S. as a treatment for chronic pain, addiction, depression and anxiety.
Although kratom is not an opioid, public health officials have warned that it has “opioid-like” qualities, can be addictive and is not approved for any medical condition.
In the new study, CDC researchers analyzed over 27,000 fatal overdoses in 27 states between July 2016 and December 2017. Kratom was determined to be the cause of death by a medical examiner or coroner in 91 overdoses, with multiple substances detected in all but seven of them.
Heavy Drug Use
Most of those who died were apparently heavy drug users. In nearly 80 percent of the kratom-involved deaths, the decedents had a prior history of substance misuse and 11% had survived a previous overdose. Fentanyl or fentanyl analogs were co-listed as a cause of death in 56% of the kratom-involved deaths. Heroin was co-listed in about a third of the kratom cases, followed by benzodiazepines (22%), a class of anti-anxiety medication, prescription opioids (20%) and cocaine (18%).
“I’m actually pleased that they are recognizing that when kratom is present in a decedent, it is usually with other substances. Instead of blaming kratom as the cause of death, it points to polysubstance use,” said Jane Babin, PhD, a molecular biologist and patent attorney. “If someone takes a lethal dose of fentanyl plus kratom, it is unreasonable to conclude that kratom was the cause of death. The same could be said of a lethal dose of fentanyl plus anything else – cannabis, coffee, Tylenol, etc. This is the same situation in many ‘opioid related’ deaths, where multiple substances are present.”
Babin has worked as a consultant to the American Kratom Association, an advocacy group of kratom vendors and consumers. She has disputed previous reports of kratom overdoses – attributing them to faulty lab tests and inexperienced coroners.
“When a coroner can’t find an obvious physical cause of death, they pin the death on kratom even though they don’t have a link between the cause and manner of death and what is known about kratom pharmacology,” Babin wrote in an email to PNN. “I think the bigger question that CDC and FDA need to address is why do these people take so many different substances, including prescription medications?
“The answer is not simple and there is no quick fix. It is easier to blame kratom or opioids and focus on those instead of addressing the complex problems of pain, mental illness and the circumstances of life that lead people to take multiple substances. At least they ‘look’ like they are doing something.”
It was another CDC report in July 2016 that laid the groundwork for an attempted ban on kratom. The report called kratom "an emerging public health threat" due to a modest increase in the number of kratom-related calls to poison control centers. The following month, the Drug Enforcement Administration tried to schedule kratom as a controlled substance, something the agency backed away from after a public outcry.
Last week the Food and Drug Administration released a laboratory analysis that found dangerous levels of heavy metals in over two dozen kratom products. However, the agency did not consider the finding significant enough to order a recall. Kratom has never been listed as dangerous substance in the DEA’s annual National Drug Threat Assessment.