Page last updated: November 21, 2021
With kratom's increasing popularity among opiate addicts looking for an alternative, many people are now researching the substance and want to know more about it. This article will look at where kratom came from, how it got to Thailand, the different strains of "kratom", what traditional uses there were (and still are) for this plant medicine, and the potential for its future in Western medicine.
Kratom (scientific name Mitragyna speciosa ) is a leafy tree that is native to Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. It is part of the coffee family, which is why it has leaves with jagged edges like coca plants do. Kratom's history goes back to early times in Southeast Asian countries, where traditionally the plant was used as a medicine and stimulant - not much different from other types of modern-day products that can be bought over the counter. In small doses, it has an invigorating effect on the user, while in larger quantities it acts as a sedative.
Kratom is derived from the leaves of Mitragyna speciosa, a tropical evergreen tree that is part of the coffee family. In low doses, Kratom is a stimulant and users report having more energy and being able to concentrate better after consuming it while higher doses have been known to produce opioid-like effects such as euphoria or relaxation. In America, kratom use has been growing over the last several years as people have started to realize that it doesn't carry with it some of the negative side effects that synthetic opioids do.
Kratom has many different names, depending on what country you are in and the language spoken there. In Malaysia and Thailand it is known as ketum or kakuam; in Indonesia it is biak or ketiwi; Papua New Guinea knows the plant as pituri. The scientific name for the plant is Mitragyna speciosa . In Thailand, kratom users are sometimes called phixay - a term derived from the word "chew".
In August, 2016 the DEA scheduled kratom as a Schedule I drug because it has high potential for abuse and no medical benefits. The history of kratom shows that the FDA is not alone in this belief, but there are several studies showing otherwise including one which concluded: Mitragynine, the active alkaloid found in kratom, succesfully blocked withdrawal symptoms and could provide therapeutic relief from opiate withdrawal, as discovered in this neurobiology study of kratom and its main alkaloid mitragynine.
Fortunately, a few months later the DEA withrew its notice to intent to institute the emergency scheduling of the active alkaloid in kratom amidst public outcry, demonstrations, and petitions from Congress.
Although not as harsh on the body as opiates, using large amounts of kratom can still cause side effects. Mild side effects include nausea, sweating, itching and dry mouth. In larger quantities, kratom can cause loss of appetite, constipation and increased urination. Using the plant over a long period of time has been known to cause weight loss, insomnia and darkening of the skin on certain parts of the body.
Like any other drug or medicine, it is not recommended to take kratom if you are pregnant or nursing. It can be dangerous to children and elderly people, even when taken in small doses. Pregnant women who take it risk having their babies born with addiction problems later in life.
Kratom is not illegal to buy or possess, although there are some states where certain aspects of it may be regulated or banned - for example, Alabama has declared kratom use illegal because they are often used to replace opiates. It is sold at various smoke shops and outdoor markets in the form of leafy powder or sometimes as a concentrated resin that can be smoked (similar to opium). Kratom is also sold in capsule form.
Over time, different strains have been developed from the kratom plant. For example, Thai kratom has a more stimulating effect than Indonesian or Malaysian strains, which are slightly sedating. These variations are not scientifically proven so much as anecdotally observed by users.
In traditional medical practices, the different kratom strains were used for different things. In northern Thailand, where most of the opium users are located, red vein kratom is preferred as a substitute because it mimics opium's sedative properties without being too intense.
There have not been many studies done on kratom, but there was one study done in Malaysia in 2009. Researchers observed the effects of kratom on 136 Malaysian men who were known heroin addicts. The results found that two to three months after being introduced to kratom, all the participants had stopped their opium intake completely - some for up to seven years without relapsing! Those who did relapse eventually got back on kratom and eventually stopped again.
Some of the men were still on kratom after seven years, but none of them suffered any serious side effects from withdrawal (constipation was mentioned by some of the subjects). The study concluded that kratom could successfully be used as a substitute for opium in fighting addiction.
Anecdotal evidence from kratom users also confirms that the plant can be used to get people off of harder substances like heroin and morphine. Several online forums exist where kratom users discuss their experiences with the plant.
There are a couple popular misconceptions about kratom, particularly from people who have never been exposed to it - either because they do not have access to it or are in an area where it is not used.
One common myth is that kratom, which contains alkaloids similar to opiates, is just "fake opium". This is patently false - while kratom does contain some alkaloids with opioid properties (including mitragynine), the plant is not chemically similar to opium enough for it to be called "fake".
Another misconception is that kratom is illegal, which is only half true. Kratom itself is very rarely illegal - in fact, most states have no laws restricting the possession or use of kratom leaves. On the other hand, certain chemicals found in kratom are banned in certain states and can result in a felony if found in your possession.
It is hard to say what will happen with kratom in the future. There are some countries where it has been illegal for years, such as Thailand and Malaysia - but because of its huge popularity as a replacement therapy drug, it may be difficult to make it illegal worldwide.
There are also some arguments that kratom should be handled like the coffee plant (which, in fact, contains caffeine - an alkaloid with stimulant properties similar to mitragynine). The only real way to know what will happen is by following the news and discussing it with like-minded people.
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