Kratom (Mitragynia Korth speciose) is a plant that belongs to the Rubiaceae family; the same that coffee plants belong to. In Southeast Asia, people have used it for thousands of years, especially in Thailand, and its leaves are used to prepare tea or crushed to consume it in the form of capsules.
"It began to be used in the United States in the last 20 years [...] I estimate that between 3 and 5 million people in the United States use it as an alternative to conventional drugs," Susan Ash, former director of the American Kratom Association, explained to the BBC.
What is kratom taken for?
People who consume kratom have reported that it reduces body pain, decreases harm from withdrawal symptoms, and helps endure the detoxification process.
"I am a chronic pain patient, and I went through opium addiction. Kratom helped me overcome both problems. I have not taken any opium for two and a half years," Ash explained.
According to a Transnational Institute study, a Dutch-based organization, many people also use this substance to help abandon heroin, alcohol, and even tobacco dependence.
What are side effects from kratom?
That same Transnational Institute study claims that kratom has positive effects on its users, such as improved sociability, increased energy, pain relief, relaxation, and euphoria. Although some side effects, like nausea, stomach aches, chills and sweats, dizziness and instability, vomiting, and itching, are cited.
However, both the Transnational Institute and the American Kratom Association have asserted that there is no evidence that the substance causes fatal overdoses.
"Kratom blocks the brain's kappa opioid receptor (the protein that helps alter the effects of pain perception, among others), so if you drink a lot, you won't feel the same intensity that people do when they abuse drugs," assured Susan Ash.
Is kratom legal?
Yes, it is, although with some caveats. At this moment, there are no FDA approved kratom products in the market since the Food and Drug Administration has some concerns about the substance and has declared that more research is needed to determine its safety for human consumption.
The Drug Enforcement Agency is not a big fan, either. In 2016, it put a temporary restriction on kratom and, right now, has the substance listed as a "drug of concern."
Is kratom safe?
The lack of clinical studies puts Kraton in a somewhat controversial position; there are opposing views about the plant's characteristics.
The Transnational Institute study states that kratom draws increasing attention as a natural alternative to medically supervised opioid substitution therapies due to its ability to mitigate potentially severe withdrawal symptoms. But for the DEA, kratom is like an opiate.
"The two active ingredients in kratom (mitragyna and 7-hydroxymitragynine) have the collateral effects of opium in the body. Therefore, they can lead to addiction or abuse," Russ Baer, a DEA spokesperson, told BBC.
Meanwhile, the American Kratom Association does not think that is so, as Susan Ash stated that "the DEA maintains that it is like an opiate, when in fact it is not. The DEA is overreacting to something that they believe will increase the opium epidemic in the United States when, in fact, it is doing just the opposite."