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Controversy erupts over ban of hot new drug

A pending federal ban on an ancient Asian herb called kratom is
drawing pushback from some researchers and alternative-medicine advocates.

 

The federal Drug Enforcement Agency’s proposed restrictions on
kratom’s painkilling properties could take effect after a 30-day notice period
ends Friday. DEA spokesman Russ Baer couldn’t give the exact
date that possession, manufacture and distribution of kratom is likely to
become illegal.

 

“It’s not if, it’s when,” he told
American Media Institute.

 

Kratom poses an “imminent hazard” to public
health, Baer said. It is often marketed as a safe, natural
alternative to controlled opioid medications such as oxycodone, morphine and
codeine. But with effects that are similar to prescription painkillers and
heroin, it can also be abused, Baer said.

 

Despite mounting opposition from politicians
and the public, the DEA plans to take emergency action to temporarily classify
two of the tropical tree’s alkaloids — mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine —
as Schedule I under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. The designation is
for drugs with no accepted medical use and the high potential for abuse, such
as heroin, LSD and ecstasy.

 

The move gives the federal Food and Drug
Administration up to three years to study the substance to determine whether
kratom has legitimate medicinal uses before its active ingredients are
classified permanently.

 

The DEA points to 15 known kratom-related deaths since 2014 as
proof of the problem. However, the botanical’s backers argue it can’t be blamed
because other drugs were involved in at least 14 of those casualties.

“One death is sufficient in and of itself,” Baer said. “We truly
are in the midst of an opioid epidemic. Too many people
are dying.”

 

The DEA also cites a rise in the nationwide
number of calls to poison control centers related to kratom as evidence of its danger. Calls increased
tenfold from 26 in 2010 to 263 in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention.

On the other hand, katom might be the “holy
grail” doctors and researchers have long been looking for as an alternative to
highly addictive opioids, according to Andrew Kruegel, a medicinal
chemist at Columbia University.

 

Kruegel said the Southeast Asian plant has
shown potential in his studies to relieve pain with fewer risks than
traditional medicines. He said kratom seems to deliver analgesic effects
without slowing breathing, the most common cause of drug-related death.

 

The looming ban will put up regulatory roadblocks
that would cripple Kruegel’s studies and add significant costs.

 

“Frankly, it’s ridiculous,” he said. “We’re
trying to do scientific research.”

 

The extra burden and the stigma associated with
Schedule I substances is also likely to deter labs from starting new studies on
kratom. Similar hurdles have for decades prevented most medical marijuana
research.

 

The proposed ban comes at a time when many states across the
country are considering lifting the prohibition to allow the recreational or
medicinal use of marijuana.

 

“The American people have got to wake up,” said Angela Harris, who
sells kratom at her Las Vegas shop Herbally Grounded. “I’m tired of plants
being taken off the market.”

 

Harris said the real reason kratom is being
banned is because it cuts into the profits of pharmaceutical companies. Her
customers tell her it reduces their pain and has helped them get off
prescription pills.

 

Susan Ash of Norfolk, Virginia said kratom
freed her from the chains of addiction. Lyme disease left the 46-year-old
disabled and suffering from chronic pain. Ash said she started the American
Kratom Association after the herb helped her get off pain pills.

 

“I can’t imagine a life without kratom,” she
said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do without it.”

 

The nonprofit has gathered more than 140,000
signatures on its petition asking the Obama
administration to stop the ban.

More than 50 members of the U.S. House of
Representatives have signed a letter urging Office of Management and Budget
Director Shaun Donovan to use his authority to delay the planned action. The 22
Republicans and 29 Democrats also wrote to the DEA’s acting administrator, Charles P. Rosenberg, to encourage him to halt the decision until the public has
had a chance to weigh in.

 

Kruegel urges leaders
to reduce the drug problem with education and appropriate medical treatment
instead of prohibition.

“It’s
time that we stop demonizing drug addicts and recreational drug users and start
looking at practical and compassionate approaches,” he said. “The ‘War on
Drugs’ has been one of the greatest public policy failures of the last
century.”

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