Over 22,000 Comments on DEA’s Kratom Ban

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.”

Medical Use of Kratom ‘Too Large to Be Ignored’

By Pat Anson, Editor

A threatened ban on kratom would stifle scientific understanding of the herb and its value in treating pain, addiction and other medical problems, according to a commentary published in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association.

"There's no question kratom compounds have complex and potential useful pharmacologic activities and they produce chemically different actions from opioids," said Walter Prozialeck, PhD, chairman of the Department of Pharmacology at Midwestern University Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine.

“In my opinion, the therapeutic potential of kratom is too large to be ignored. Well-controlled clinical trials on kratom or the many active compounds in kratom are needed to address this issue.”

In August, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration issued an emergency order saying it would classify two of kratom’s active ingredients -- mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine -- as Schedule I controlled substances.

Such an order would have effectively banned the sale and possession of an herbal supplement that millions of people use to treat pain, anxiety, depression and addiction. It would also make it harder for researchers to conduct clinical trials of kratom.

The DEA postponed its decision only after a backlash from kratom supporters and some members of Congress. The agency said it would seek new guidance from the FDA and allow public comment on the proposed ban until December 1. Over 7,000 people have commented so far at Regulations.gov.

In its emergency order, the DEA said kratom posed an “imminent hazard to public safety” and referred to its chemical compounds as “opioid substances.” But Prozialeck says kratom behaves differently than opioids, because it doesn't produce euphoria or depress respiration.

“At the molecular level, mitragynines are struc­turally quite different from traditional opioids such as morphine. Moreover, recent studies indicate that even though the mitragynines can interact with opioid receptors, their molecular actions are different from those of opioids,” he wrote. “Based on all of the evidence, it is clear that kratom and its mitragy­nine constituents are not opioids and that they should not be classified as such.”

Prozialeck also disputes the notion that kratom is linked to several deaths, saying other drugs or health problems could have been involved. While he thinks banning the herb would be a mistake, Prozialeck believes some regulation is needed to prevent kratom products from being adulterated or contaminated with other substances.

"After evaluating the literature, I can reach no other conclusion than, in pure herbal form, when taken at moderate doses of less than 10 to 15 g (grams), pure leaf kratom appears to be relatively benign in the vast majority of users. Without reported evidence, however, it would not be appropriate for phy­sicians to recommend kratom for their patients,” he concludes.

That’s a sentiment that Dr. Anita Gupta agrees with.  She says several of her patients have successfully used kratom for pain relief, but until more research is conducted on the herb’s safety and efficacy, Gupta won’t recommend it to other patients.

“What I hear from patients is that they’re getting good benefit from it. But we have to wonder if kratom itself has pharmacological benefit or if it’s a placebo effect,” said Gupta, an osteopathic anesthesiologist and pharmacist who also serves on an FDA advisory board.

“I would encourage more oversight of kratom. There should be more regulation of kratom substances. That could come from the FDA or DEA, to make sure patients are safe and there’s no harmful interaction. To say that it’s only a dietary supplement, I don’t know if that’s the right classification, because we’re using it for clinical conditions and diseases. I think we need more oversight and more research should be conducted,” Gupta told PNN.

It’s a Catch-22 for kratom supporters. If research confirms its therapeutic value, that could result in kratom being classified as a Schedule II or III controlled substance, on the same level as other medications that have a potential for abuse. Kratom would still be legal to obtain, but only with a prescription.

In a survey of over 6,000 kratom users by Pain News Network and the American Kratom Association, over 98 percent said they wanted kratom to remain available as a dietary supplement without a prescription.  Seven out of 10 also said pharmaceutical companies should not be allowed to produce and market kratom products.

DEA Withdraws Plan to Ban Kratom

By Pat Anson, Editor

Facing opposition from the public and some members of Congress, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has withdrawn plans to classify two of the active ingredients in kratom as Schedule I controlled substances, a move that would have made the sale and possession of the herb a felony.

“DEA has received numerous comments from members of the public challenging the scheduling action and requesting that the agency consider those comments and accompanying information before taking further action,” the DEA said in a notice published in the Federal Register.

“DEA is therefore taking the following actions: DEA is withdrawing the August 31, 2016 notice of intent; and soliciting comments from the public regarding the scheduling of mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine under the Controlled Substances Act.” 

Mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine are alkaloids in kratom that appear to act on opioid receptors in the brain. They are not approved for any medical use in the United States, even though millions of kratom consumers use the the herb to manage pain, anxiety, depression, addiction and other medical conditions.

The unprecedented decision to withdraw the scheduling of a controlled substance does not end the possibility that kratom will be banned. The DEA said it would re-evaluate its decision after the public comment period ends on December 1, 2016. The agency will also ask the Food and Drug Administration to expedite a full scientific and medical evaluation of kratom.

“DEA will consider all public comments received under the above procedures, as well as FDA’s scientific and medical evaluation and scheduling recommendation for these substances.  Once DEA has received and considered all of this information, DEA will decide whether to proceed with permanent scheduling of mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine , or both permanent and temporary scheduling of these substances,” the agency said in its announcement.

If the DEA decides to schedule kratom permanently, the agency said it would publish a new notice in the Federal Register and allow for a second public comment period. Under the original emergency scheduling notice published on August 30, there was no public notice or comment period.

“We moved a mountain and now we’re parting the sea!!! Keep the pressure on; wait for commenting instructions please, we still have A LOT of work ahead of us,” wrote Susan Ash, founder of the American Kratom Association (AKA) in a note to supporters on Facebook.

“I think what this clearly shows is that there is no imminent public health threat or they wouldn’t be adding on a 6 week public comment process and putting it back on the FDA,” Ash told PNN.

She said her organization would resist any effort to classify kratom in a less restrictive category than Schedule I, which is how marijuana, LSD and heroin are classified. At present. there are no federal limits on kratom as a dietary supplement, although it is banned in a handful of states.

"We still believe it should not be scheduled in any way, shape or form. It's been consumed safely here for decades and worldwide for a millennium, so there's really no impetus to make it a controlled substance, period," said Ash.

In its initial attempt to ban kratom -- which comes from the leaves of a tree in Southeast Asia -- the DEA said the herb had “psychoactive effects” and was linked to dozens of overdose deaths.

In reaching that assessment, the agency relied primarily on the research and advice of the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Critics, however, say much of that research was deeply flawed and unreliable. For example, a recent CDC report claimed kratom was “an emerging public health threat” and cited two published research reports that “associated kratom exposure with psychosis, seizures, and deaths.”

Those two reports, however, make no mention of deaths caused by kratom. The CDC also relied on a newspaper article to help document one kratom-related death, even though it was actually caused by a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

"Nowhere does DEA rely on the scientific, epidemiological, and public health sources that normally undergird the assertion that a substance poses a high potential for abuse, let alone an imminent public health threat,” lawyers for the AKA said in a letter to DEA acting administrator Chuck Rosenberg.

To overturn the ban, the AKA enlisted the help of over 60 members of Congress, who signed letters urging the DEA to delay scheduling kratom and to solicit more public input. Over 142,000 kratom supporters also signed a White House petition asking the Obama administration to postpone the scheduling.

"I think the DEA was pressured so much by Congress, the public and by the media that they realized that they didn't really have the proof and the science to emergency schedule this," Ash said. "It put the DEA in a really difficult position and now the DEA is just trying to admit the fact that they don't have what they need to call this a public health threat."

In a survey of over 6,000 kratom consumers by Pain News Network and the AKA, nine out of ten said kratom was a “very effective” treatment for pain, depression, anxiety, insomnia, opioid addiction and alcoholism. Many also predicted that banning the herb would only lead to more drug abuse, addiction and death.

"The DEA missed the mark here and it would be a gross miscarriage of due process to simply tell millions of American consumers and the legal businesses that serve them that they are now felons,” said Travis Lowin of the Botanical Education Alliance in a statement before the DEA reversed its decision. 

“The DEA has a strict set of rules it is supposed to follow for an emergency scheduling of a drug and kratom meets none of those tests.  There are reasonable limits on the power of what government can do precisely to avoid situations like this where legal consumer conduct and legitimate free enterprise would otherwise be crushed overnight by indiscriminate use of the power of government."

Critics Say Fed Kratom Research Flawed

By Pat Anson, Editor

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relied on flawed and unreliable research – some of it based on a newspaper article -- to build a case against the herbal supplement kratom, according to lawyers hired by the American Kratom Association (AKA).

The DEA cited a CDC report claiming that “deaths have been attributed to kratom” when it announced plans for the emergency scheduling of two active ingredients in kratom as Schedule I controlled substances, a move that would make the sale and possession of the herb a felony. 

Kratom, which comes from the leaves of a tree that grows in Southeast Asia, is used by millions of Americans in teas and supplements to treat chronic pain, anxiety, depression, addiction and other medical problems.

“AKA takes very seriously DEA’s concern that approximately 30 reports of fatalities have been linked to consumers who had ingested or possessed a kratom product. However, a close examination of these reports shows that there are no instances in which kratom itself was determined to be responsible for the cause of death,” wrote lawyers David Fox and Lynn Mehler, in a letter to DEA acting administrator Chuck Rosenberg.

“There is good reason to question whether these reports indeed represent a valid or meaningful signal with respect to kratom. Close review of the totality of evidence points clearly in the other direction, namely, that kratom is well tolerated and relatively mild in its effects.”

Fox and Mehler are partners in the Los Angeles-based law firm of Hogan Lovells, which was hired by the AKA, an organization of kratom consumers that receives some of its funding from kratom vendors.

In their 35-page letter to Rosenberg, Fox and Mehler said much of the evidence used by DEA to justify the emergency scheduling was “fundamentally flawed” because it relies on reports that “are inadequate and unreliable.”

In the emergency scheduling notice published in the Federal Register, DEA cited a July 2016 report from the CDC that claimed kratom was “an emerging public health threat.” The CDC said kratom related calls to U.S. poison control centers rose from 26 calls in 2010 to 263 in 2015 – a total of 660 calls over a six year period.

Fox and Mehler said that pales in comparison to the number of calls to poison centers received about other common household items, including caffeine (23,303 calls in 6 years) and essential oils (66,300 calls).

The CDC report also cited two published research reports that “associated kratom exposure with psychosis, seizures, and deaths.”

“The CDC publication appears to have either misidentified its sources or been mistaken in its conclusions, as both sources reported no deaths from kratom,” wrote Fox and Mehler. “Likewise, the CDC report also stated that ‘deaths have been attributed to kratom in the United States,’ but it cited for that proposition a single report in a newspaper article. The newspaper article reported the suicide of a 22-year old male by self-inflicted gunshot wound.”

The assertion that CDC research is faulty is not a new one. Similar complaints were raised about the weak evidence used by CDC to justify its guidelines for opioid prescribing. Critics have also faulted the agency for “incomplete and biased” reports about the risks associated with opioid pain medication, and misleading reports about the number of deaths caused by prescription opioids.

“Nowhere does DEA rely on the scientific, epidemiological, and public health sources that normally undergird the assertion that a substance poses a high potential for abuse, let alone an imminent public health threat,” said Fox and Mehler. “The proposed use of the emergency scheduling provisions in this case is unprecedented, contrary to the law and public interest, violates fundamental principles of regulatory procedure, and implicates serious constitutional questions.”

The DEA has not publicly responded to the AKA letter. The agency could have classified kratom as a Schedule I controlled substance on September 30, but caved into political pressure from some members of Congress to leave the legal status of the herb unchanged for the time being. 

Under the DEA’s emergency scheduling order, no public notice or comment period was allowed. But according to Wisconsin Rep. Mark Pocan’s office, the agency will allow for a “modified comment process” about the scheduling of kratom, although that has not yet been confirmed by the agency.

Kratom activists believe the DEA will announce its decision soon.

“We’ve heard through the grapevine that as early as Tuesday, the DEA is going to be making an announcement about where they go from notice of intent to saying that they’re going to allow for a public comment process,” said Susan Ash, founder of AKA.

“Our concern is that it will be a very brief amount of time to be able to get enough comments from the scientific community, the medical community and the public at large to really have an impact on this decision. So the question is this just an attempt to save face by the DEA when they still have full intent of banning it? Or are they really going to be opening up a true comment process?”

In a survey of over 6,000 kratom consumers by Pain News Network and the American Kratom Association, over 95 percent said banning the herb would have a harmful effect on society. Many predicted it would lead to more addiction and illegal drug abuse.     

DEA Banning All Sales of Kratom

By Pat Anson, Editor

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has announced plans to ban all sales of kratom, a popular herbal supplement increasingly being used as an alternative to opioids for relieving chronic pain.

The DEA filed notice in the federal register that it plans to classify two opioid-like chemicals in kratom as Schedule I drugs under the Controlled Substances Act – the same classification given to heroin, LSD and marijuana. Kratom is currently considered a food supplement, not a drug, but the move would effectively prohibit all sales of kratom, which comes from the leaves of a tree grown in southeast Asia.

The founder of the American Kratom Association told Pain News Network that her organization may go to court to block the DEA from carrying out its plan.

"This honestly was a complete and total shock for those of us involved in this issue," said Susan Ash. "We're weighing all of our options right now and one option of course is to seek a temporary restraining order."

The two main active ingredients in kratom, mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine, act on the same receptors in the brain as opioids do, but are not currently approved as drugs.

The DEA said it needed to classify them temporarily as controlled substances “to avoid an imminent hazard to public safety.”

“Available information indicates that these opioid substances, constituents of the plant kratom, have a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision,” the DEA said.

“Consequently, kratom, which contains the main active constituents mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine, is an increasingly popular drug of abuse and readily available on the recreational drug market in the United States. Attempted importations of kratom are routinely misdeclared and falsely labeled. This is similar to other attempts to import controlled substances or substances intended to mimic controlled substances.”

Although the DEA refers to mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine as "opioids," they are actually alkaline compounds that are believed to act on natural opioid receptors in the brain.

"They're not opioids. An opioid is a synthetic version of the poppy plant, so that's just completely wrong," said Ash. "They are novel substances that I really don't think you can define, quite honestly. There's nothing else like them in medicine or nature."

Although illegal in a handful of states, kratom is widely available online and in health stores, where it is sold as dried or crushed leaves, powder, capsules, tablets, liquids and gum. Users tout kratom's pain relieving benefits, and say it also reduces stress, depression and cravings for other drugs.  Recent policies that discourage the prescribing of opioid pain medication have increased interest in kratom as an alternative treatment.

Ash is a recovering opioid addict who uses kratom as a deterrent.

"I have no cravings for narcotics. No part of me ever desires to put narcotics back into my body because of kratom. There is no need because it works so well and it eliminates cravings," said Ash, who used the addiction treatment drug Suboxone for about a year while in recovery.

"I went off of Suboxone using kratom. There is no way I would ever put myself back on Suboxone. But where do I go for help with pain now?" she asked.

Ash first had an inkling that the federal government was preparing to take broader action against kratom when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report last month claiming that kratom was "an emerging public health threat." The CDC cited kratom-related calls to U.S. poison control centers, which jumped from 26 calls in 2010 to 263 in 2015.

"I'm sorry, but I don't consider 263 calls to poison control an emerging public health threat. I don't think anyone does," said Ash. 

Few Kratom Studies

Although kratom has been used medically for hundreds of years, few studies have been done on its safety or to see how it actually works.

“Mitragyna speciose (kratom) has a psychostimulant effect like coca and a depressive effect like opium and cannabis, which seem to be contradictory. It is also reported that it is weaker than morphine, has a milder withdrawal syndrome compared to opioids, and is less harmful than cocaine,” is how one study explained it.

The Food and Drug Administration has been trying unsuccessfully to stop the importation and sale of kratom.  Last year the FDA issued an import alert that allows the agency to seize kratom supplements without even physically examining them.

Earlier this month, FDA agents seized more than 100 cases of products labeled as kratom in Grover Beach, California. The products are distributed by Nature Therapeutics Inc. under the name Kratom Therapy.  The FDA said the company was illegally selling kratom products as drugs to treat various medical conditions.

“The FDA will continue to take aggressive enforcement action to safeguard the public from harmful drug products illegally marketed as treatments for which they have not been studied or approved,” said Melinda Plaisier, the FDA’s associate commissioner for regulatory affairs.

The DEA says the ban on kratom chemicals would take effect at the end of September. Earlier this month, the agency also said it would not change the classification of marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance.