Kratom is a plant in the coffee family that's native to Southeast Asia, and it acts as a stimulant in low doses and as a euphoric sedative in higher doses. The dried leaves can be smoked, used to make a tea or powdered and made into capsules. Kratom is also known as ketum, kakuam and thom.
Kratom acts on the delta and mu opioid receptors of the brain, which are the same areas that heroin and prescription opioid pain relievers activate.
Kratom leaves were traditionally chewed by Thai and Malaysian farmers and other workers to increase energy and relieve muscle strains, and although the drug has been illegal in Thailand since 1979, it's still very popular there. Kratom has gained popularity in the U.S. in recent years, where it's available for sale on the Internet or legally sold as a dietary supplement in head shops across the nation.
According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, a low dose of kratom acts as a stimulant, increasing alertness, energy and talkativeness. At higher doses, the effects are similar to those of opiates, causing an initial period of euphoria followed by a period of sedation. The effects of kratom last for two to five hours.
Side effects of kratom use include itching, nausea, constipation, loss of appetite and a dry mouth. Long-term effects include weight loss and anorexia, insomnia, chronic constipation and the darkening of the skin. Psychosis has also been reported in association with kratom abuse, including symptoms like hallucinations, confusion and delusional thinking.
In Asia and the U.S., some people who are addicted to opiates use kratom to stave off withdrawal symptoms as they wean themselves from heroin or prescription opiate painkillers. However, kratom itself is addictive, and those who develop a dependence on it and then stop using it will likely experience withdrawal symptoms that include aggression and hostility, body aches and jerky limbs.
A recent New York Times article noted that concern regarding kratom use is particularly high in South Florida, which has a high concentration of drug treatment centers. Kratom bars that serve the drug in tea form are cropping up in that area, and experts are worried that kratom is leading some people in recovery back to heroin, which is cheaper than kratom and offers stronger effects.
It's important to understand that "legal" doesn't mean "safe." While kratom has been banned in some states and is being closely monitored in others, the FDA can't restrict its sale until it's proven to be unsafe, although it did ban the import of kratom in 2014 under its authority to do so when it's strongly suspected that a substance is harmful.
Similarly, while the DEA has listed kratom as a drug of concern, it can't classify it as a controlled substance without proof that it's unsafe and has a high abuse potential.
If you or someone you love is addicted kratom or is using it to help stave off opiate withdrawal, a high-quality treatment center can help you overcome kratom or opiate dependence safely and effectively through medical detox or long-term maintenance with drugs like methadone or buprenorphine. Once the physical dependence is under control, various therapies will help you address the issues behind the addiction and precipitate a higher level of self-awareness, better mental health and a higher quality of life free of addiction.
Photo by ThorPorre (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons