The widely popular pain relief supplement kratom has been linked to almost 100 overdose deaths in recent years. Advocates for kratom have argued for years that people cannot die from using the drug. However, the new evidence appears to suggest otherwise.
In Notes from the Field update from the Centers of Disease Control, authors Emily O’Malley Olsen, Ph.D., Julie O’Donnell, Ph.D., Christine L. Mattson, Ph.D., Joshua G. Schier, MD, Nana Wilson, Ph.D., share their finding from a 17-month study of overdose records.
According to the report, the authors reviewed data collected from the State Unintentional Drug Overdose Reporting System (SUDORS). The database gathers overdose information from 32 states and the District of Columbia.
Through an analysis of 17 months of data, the authors found 91 overdose deaths connected to Kratom in 11 states.
Kratom is a tropical tree that is native to Southeast Asia. The plant is ground up and placed into capsules. According to the National Institute of Health, kratom produces psychotropic mind-altering effects. In low doses, Kratom acts as a stimulant and provides energy.
When taken in higher doses, the plant acts as a depressant and interacts with opioid receptors which reduce pain, produces sedation, and increases pleasure. Individuals with chronic pain have touted kratom as an alternative to strong narcotics like Vicodin, Percocet, and Oxy-Contin.
The same groups that have advocated for kratom as an alternative to other opioids have also insisted that the drug cannot lead to deaths. American Kratom Organization has argued for years that the plant is a safer alternative to heroin, fentanyl, and morphine. Additionally, the group insists that people cannot die from using kratom.
In the United States, kratom is not technically illegal. However, the FDA does not approve the drug to treat any diseases. The product is sold in packages often labeled as “not for human consumption.” Because kratom is not native to the United States, individuals typically purchase the product online.
Through the study, the authors determined that in at least seven deaths kratom was the only drug listed on the toxicology report by the coroner. In 84 cases, kratom combined with other drugs contributed to the death of the person. For these deaths, the toxicology reports included other narcotics such as fentanyl and heroin.
Most of the overdose deaths occurred in people with known substance abuse issues. In fact, 80% of the users had a history of drug misuse. Additionally, 90% of the kratom related deaths indicated the person had no evidence of receiving medically supervised treatment for pain.
Simply put, kratom users that died from the drug were using the drug and not seeing a doctor. Additionally, they were mixing kratom with other powerful medications not prescribed by doctors. A doctor cannot advise patients on the use of kratom.
The report reviewed data from 11 states within the SUDORS database. Because the study examined a fraction of the states, the authors believe kratom related deaths could be much higher than the 91 cases they found. Some states do not document kratom on toxicology reports.
Because kratom is not illegal, users can purchase the product from various outlets. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency is currently researching the drug to determine if the states will schedule kratom as an illegal substance. In November 2018, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services requested that the DEA ban kratom.In the request, HHS stated that two chemicals found in the plant should be listed as a “Schedule 1 substance.” Schedule 1 Substances is a drug with a high potential of abuse and no known medical use for the drug. Other drugs in this category are heroin, LSD, and marijuana.
Kratom is available for purchase online with misbranded labels that say “not for human consumption.’ People that use the product have no idea the amount of kratom the bottle contains. Additionally, because no agency regulates kratom, the product receives no testing for safety.
Last week the FDA issued a warning that they found high levels of nickel and lead in 30 different kratom products. Additionally, in fall 2018, the FDA warned that dozens of kratom products had been linked to salmonella infections.
With so much concerning information continuing to flood the market about kratom, people still use the product. Users of the product I spoke to said they believed kratom was a better alternative to heroin. Others noted that kratom helped stop their use of heroin, fentanyl, and other power opioids. All of the people I spoke to were aware of the risks and understood the plant is addictive.
As more data comes forward, kratom may be closer to becoming illegal in the United States. Kratom is not legal in Australia, Canada, Parts of Europe, Malaysia, Thailand, and New Zealand.
*Katie Joy is a columnist and hosts Without A Crystal Ball on Patheos Non-Religious Channel. She writes articles on parenting, disability advocacy, debunking pseudoscience, atheism, and crimes against women and children.
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