W

hen money is scarce, Margo Burton and her husband will go without cigarettes. Sometimes her husband has to go weeks without using his cell phone.

But the loss she feels most acutely is when she runs out of an herbal supplement called kratom. She takes two teaspoons of it every three hours to control the debilitating pain caused by endometriosis.

“I need it so I’m not hurting, so I can be a good mother,” said Burton, a 31-year-old stay-at-home mom of a toddler in southeastern Missouri.

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So when she read this week’s news that the Drug Enforcement Administration will outlaw kratom for two years — putting it into the same legal category as heroin and LSD — she started sobbing. She could hardly talk as she woke her husband up to be consoled.

From the DEA’s perspective, kratom is a dangerous, life-threatening drug that is creating a “public health crisis.” But to daily kratom users like Burton, the drug is a lifeline. “A whole lot of people are going to go into a deep depression and commit suicide, or start back on dangerous drugs that cause them to OD,” Burton said.

It’s easy to dismiss kratom users as herbal remedy enthusiasts, intent on using psychoactive plants however they like. But the DEA’s decision has revealed, instead, a hidden nationwide network of advocates, educators, and devotees who talk about discovering kratom the way some Christians talk of being born again.

Many use it to try to wean themselves off opioids. Others use it to manage the pain of autoimmune disorders or car accidents. Veterans use it to tamp down their post-traumatic disorder. Users recognize that an unregulated substance comes with certain risks, so they have banded together on the internet to vet kratom vendors and mentor new converts.

Now the community is ramping up to battle the DEA. At the center of that fight is Susan Ash, the founder and director of the American Kratom Association.

The Queen of Kratom

In 2008, Ash got so sick she couldn’t care for herself. It blindsided her. She had been working as a conservationist in Oregon, hiking through majestic tracts of forest as part of her work day, but she had to give it up and move back in with her parents in Norfolk, Va.

“The pain was excruciating,” she said. “It was in my joints, it would wake me up in the middle of the night, it would have me in the emergency room.”

Doctors thought it was fibromyalgia, and began to prescribe her heavy-duty opioids. But in 2010, she tested positive for Lyme disease. That was only part of her trouble, though: she soon found she was addicted to opioids, counting the hours until her next dose.

She had heard about kratom in a Lyme support group. She was suspicious at first, and didn’t want to have anything to do with the woman who made the suggestion. “I was frightened, really frightened,” she recalled. “I avoided her for a few weeks.”

But then Ash began to do some research.

She learned that kratom is the name of a tree with wide glossy leaves and yellow flowers, grown in the jungles of Southeast Asia. She learned also that it had been used for centuries by those who were experiencing opiate withdrawal.

Eventually, she called the woman back. “She had to walk me through this whole process, how to take it, who to buy from,” she said.

Much of the kratom consumed in the United States is grown in Indonesia and Malaysia, where the leaves are dried and ground into a powder. That, in turn, is compressed into 5-kilogram bricks and shipped to American vendors. Kratom is sold in smoke shops and sometimes even gas stations, but Ash and most kratom users buy it online.

It was kratom, Ash said, that allowed her to escape the opioid epidemic. She ended up in rehab in 2011, and was weaned off her pain pills with Suboxone, a medication that itself contains opioids and can be addictive. So, after eight months, against her doctor’s orders, she weaned herself off Suboxone with kratom.

“This is the plant that returned me to being a productive member of society again,” she said.

Many states, however, didn’t see it that way.

In 2013, Tennessee outlawed the selling and possession of kratom, and more states were headed in the same direction.

So, in 2014, Ash started the American Kratom Association to try to keep the substance legal. With kratom keeping her pain at bay, she said, she began flying from state to state, meeting with legislators and speaking at hearings. Over the course of three months this year, she visited six states to try to beat back proposed kratom bans.

The irony is that she agrees with some of the reasoning behind the crackdown.

Do-it-yourself regulators

Kratom worries physicians partially because opioid addicts are using it instead of seeking medical help.

But they also worry about it because what they think is kratom might not actually be kratom.

“Here’s the problem in the United States,” explained Dr. Edward Boyer, an emergency physician and toxicologist at Boston Children’s Hospital, who has done research on the substance. “If I walk up and buy a bag of kratom, I don’t know what’s in that. Is it kratom? Is it some plant matter to which an opioid has been added? There’s evidence that some unscrupulous businessmen have taken plants and sprayed hydrocodone on them.”

That’s because of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, which prevents the Food and Drug Administration from regulating dietary supplements unless they are sold with packaging that claims they have medicinal benefits.

As more and more states have looked into banning kratom, the FDA has also been cracking down, outlawing its import and ordering the seizure of any batches that do make drug claims.

But, as FDA spokesperson Lyndsay Meyer told STAT in July, “We have very little power over supplements.”

And that’s something that Ash — suspicious as she is about government regulation — worries about.

“There is a problem with some rogue industry people out there putting things into kratom that may or may not be natural. You don’t want people to be nervous that it’s a huge widespread problem and never take kratom,” she said.

So some kratom users have formed a kind of do-it-yourself FDA, approving or denying certain kratom vendors, trying to make sure that the stuff they are putting into their bodies every day is safe.

The inspectors have little or no training in toxicology, chemistry, or medicine. They don’t have home laboratories. But what they do have is experience taking kratom. They are the administrators of one of the most popular online kratom communities, a closed Facebook group called Kratom (New and Current Users.)

“You have to be vetted by the admins of the group in order to advertise,” said Kathy Timinskis, a 66-year-old group administrator, who lives in Zimmerman, Minn.

To kratom sellers, the vetting process is worth it: the group has over 13,000 members.

“Once they start advertising in there, they’re going to get a lot of business,” said Margo Burton, the mother in Missouri, who is another administrator.

So the vendors agree to fill out the Facebook group’s application forms, send the administrators a copy of their business license, and send off samples to independent laboratories to be tested for contaminants such as salmonella and E. coli. The vendors then pass on those lab reports to the administrators of the group.

But they also need to send something else: samples of their products. Usually, vendors send 3 ounces of each of the three different strains.

“We’re kind of like the guinea pigs,” said Burton.

Kratom
Kratom capsules are sold in smoke shops and gas stations, or online. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

“If you’ve been taking it for as a long as I have, you know what it looks like and what it tastes like,” said Shannon Scatolini, a 40-year-old legal assistant from Corvallis, Mont., who has been taking kratom for over 12 years and who said she used it to wean herself off opioids.

Users describe the taste as earthy and bitter, and as Scatlonini said, it’s as fine as flour, so it’s easy to see if there is some kind of contaminant. Once, one of the inspectors found a shard of glass glittering in the green powder.

They did not warn their 13,000 followers about that producer, though.

“We just didn’t accept them,” said Scatolini, “and we didn’t allow them in our group.”

Scatolini and Burton say that none of them has ever gotten sick from the kratom they’ve tried, and they provided STAT with examples of reports from a Michigan laboratory showing that samples of kratom had been tested for bacteria, mold, and yeast.

For Burton, being one of the self-appointed watchdogs of the kratom community comes with an added bonus.

“I live check to check,” she said. “There were two times where I was about to run out, and then I got a vetted vendor sample and it held me over until we got a check and I could order more.”

On most mornings, if her daughter isn’t up yet, the first thing she does is go to the mason jar of kratom on her kitchen counter. She takes a drink of sweet iced tea from a cup that’s ready in the fridge, pours two teaspoons of the greenish powder into her mouth, and then washes it down with another gulp of tea.

It’s a method she calls “toss and wash.”

“Some people take capsules,” she said. “Some people parachute it: If you don’t have capsules, you wrap it up inside a tissue or a fruit roll up or a flattened candy in order to mask the taste.”

But those daily rituals will soon become a criminal offense.

Stocking up while it’s legal

“This is not a woulda coulda shouda,” said Russ Baer, a spokesperson for the DEA. “This is definitely going to happen as early as September 30, 2016, or shortly thereafter.”

The agency defended its action, saying it was aware of 15 kratom-related deaths worldwide between 2014 and 2016.

Kratom advocates, however, say these terrible effects are always caused in conjunction with other drugs — and they are hoping to hash that disagreement out in court.

“We’re in the process of hiring a federal lobbying firm, a PR firm, and an expert toxicologist [who] can challenge the DEA’s claims that there have been deaths tied to kratom,” said Ash. She is also looking for lawyers with experience fighting the DEA, as are some kratom vendors.

The ban on kratom will last two or three years, during which time the Department of Health and Human Services will determine whether kratom poses a threat to public health. If studies find that it does, kratom will remain illegal; if not, the ban will be lifted.

It has happened before: a drug called TFMPP, often thought of as a stand-in for ecstasy, was banned by the DEA in 2002, only to be legalized again two years later.

In the meantime, kratom users are scrambling to buy as much of the greenish powder as they can while it’s still legal.

“Everybody I know is stocking up right now, and the vendors are running out,” said Margo Burton.

Her mason jar has only a half-kilo of kratom left. That’s enough to last her a few weeks — and she dreads the day when she has to go back to taking opioids.

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  • We are converting from pharmaceuticals to the natural way but as we concert we are finding the stuff that would help us have been or are being banned because those people that have taken this herbal remedy have not understood taking a stimulant with a stimulant that’s already natural in this plant is going to land you in the er and energy drink sold in stores tells consumers the same thing to much of it can cause adverse effects. My spouse and I have chronic pain and would love to not have to take pharmaceutical opiate pain meds but the government and doctors push them chemicals on consumers because they can’t make money off the natural remedies. God said in the Bible in the book of Genesis that he provides everything his children need on earth, and scientists have been trying to fond the natural cures going in the jungle looking for the natural plants that can help people with any and all diseases including chronic pain which is a huge epidemic in not only the USA but across the world. The chemical properties in some of the pharmaceuticals have binding chemicals that make up the parts to these drugs will make you question why are they on the market int he first place one such drug is a muscle relaxer skelaxton that has these binding agents that make up the drug methanal, ethanal, and chloroform look it up online until you find the atom make up the drug itself, thats how I found out what’s in it, baclofen has the main chemical that is used in the pesticide DDT. I’m no chemist I just research the shit out of what I am taking or the so called doc is prescribing me . And alot more people have died from taking pharmaceutical opiate’s than natural remedies because most people that take natural remedies research and understand what they are getting into before they jump into the natural way. If it wasn’t meant for us on earth then god wouldn’t provide that remedy for us. I believe in nature remedies and my daughter’s and I have been trying to convince my spouce and others of the same that the natural way is better than billion dollar pharmaceuticals and doctors that push those pharmaceuticals. Don’t get me wrong there are some things the natural way can’t fix right now because they haven’t been found in the natural community yet. But Goldenseal a root harvested in Aug and Sept in New England is a natural antibiotic but if more than what the naturist or bottle a day can kill you because it is a very strong antioxidant and helped me along with echnechea, and cranberry pills all together took three weeks but go rid of a really bad UTI that I had. St John’s wart is not recommended to take with any other meds to get rid of anxiety it’s like taking a Xanax only naturally. Its all in the know what is what and what it can do and what not to do with it. The docs and drug companies can’t make money off healthy people taking the natural products grow on earth that benefit people so why would they want anyone to take what helps the the natural way when they can’t make money off it so asking a doc about natural stuff they will generally tell you not to take it and give you a chemical a drug rep visited the week before and pushed to the doc to sell instead. Knowledge is power, an educated person is power over the money making medical community, and maybe the government who makes as much money off the medical business as the docs and drug companies do off us regular consumers. I recommend research the medical and natural stuff before taking anything know what your putting into your body and your families body’s. Knowledge is power. Educate people about kratum and my hubby and I are keeping and eye on it becoming legalized again and crossing our fingers it does get the ban lifted off it. If it doesn’t get lifted then its because they can’t figure out a way to make money off it, like marijuana which has been proven to have multiple health benefits and it what do you know a plant grown in earth that has been used for health benefits for centuries and wasn’t banned untik 1930’s when it wasn’t understood the positive benefits from it, and is just now getting that recognition and I don’t smoke marijuana but believe in the natural benefits it has on those people that can benefit from the types of it that don’t get a person high, but benefit seizure patients, cancer patients, people with mental disabilities it benefit. Research what your are putting into your body and what the doc recommends you take before you take it under what makes that medicine, because their are FDA medicine pharmaceuticals have on the market that they know kills some people but not all people that take their chemical pill and the FDA doesn’t ban that drug because it’s making the government doctors, and most of all pharmaceuticals money so they settle cases bright against them by patients and families of dead patients of said drug, and it’s kept quiet.
    I know of a quiet a few drugs that that’s happened with. Menopause drugs all have a cancer risk haven’t found one that does not have e that risk, but the natural remedies don’t have the cancer risk my great died from taking the pharmaceutical the doctor gave her knowing full well that menopause drug could give her cancer and she died from cancer throughout her body because of trying to relieve the menopause symptoms with a pharmaceutical drugs the doctor prescribed her. I recommend to my neighbors two menopause natural remedies that help relieve the symptoms without he risk of cancer, st Johns wort, and black cohosh that comew fro the healthline website itself. Other sources say silly stuff as well as yoga which is helpful to work people but not everyone.
    Just research things and don’t be a sheep following the heard over the cliff so to speak.
    I am praying Kratum is relegalized and more regulated with the naturist stores that are quality natural products selling quality natural products and can educate people looking to take it as a supplement over being on chemical opiates the main stream medical community pushes on the sheep following them over the said cliff so to speak not asking questions just thinking the doctor os always right when in fact they aren’t always right. My oldest daughter is an RN and my youngest is working hee way through school to be a pediatrician and looking at being a naturalist pediatrician because not enough is known on dosage for natural stuff for children and there are enough natural pediatriciams out there.

    • Everyone is scared now so buying kratom via mail order is risky and there are scammers who will take money but not supply. Try finding a reputable vendor on facebook: kratom vendors marketplace. And join the fight to keep it legal. Kratom tea allowed me to stop taking opiates for spinal surgery and stenosis.

  • I would like to get off opiod pain killers for chronic back pain (had L-4/5
    fused 4 years ago) and spurs on cervical spine. I heard Dr. Chris Kilam speak
    of Kratom and would like to try it. Could you please let me know how to
    purchase this. Sounds like it’s already trying to be taken off the market. Thanks very much Mrs. Barker

  • Banning Kratom is ridiculous and shows those who oppose it as just following fear mongers who only follow what they hear and don’t investigate for themselves. There is more harm being done with alcohol abuse or opioid abuse. I have found no one that has Kratom harm and just the DEA quoting this, we’re suppose to believe this, but further research into it finds that those people were abusing other drugs. It would be hard to abuse Kratom in a sense that taking a lot at one time would cause an overdose, NOT, if you take to much you’ll get sick, so you learn the exact amount for yourself. It’s a shame that people who are getting relief from it are now going to be considered people who are doing a criminal act if taking after deadline, how ridiculous. You can bet those who DEA reps take a glass of alcohol after work or at parties but it causes deaths everyday, if not by drinking then by drinking and driving. Wow crazy.

  • I need for severe daytime RLS., Willis-Ekbom Disease, The regular prescribed meds I take at night I cant work on also have siesuresbif I have to ride in a car. I NEED kratom, praying it stays legal.!!!

  • Hi. I wanted to let you know that I wrote emails to people asking them to sign the letters and actually got a response back from Congress Seth Moulton. He very politely told me he would not be signing the letter and that he sided with the FDA on the issue. He spewed all the usual things we have heard about the high number of calls to poison control that have come in, blah, blah, blah. He hopes I understand. I get the feeling he only read the DEA hype and has not looked into this any further. SO FRUSTRATED.

  • It’s funny that your article does not mention making tea from kratom. That is the most common way it is consumed. Tea is brewed or the kratom leaf is mixed with hot water and drank. Thank you for your fair article. Kratom is a supplement I’ve been using for years. It is safe and healthy for me. It does not cause the jitters that caffeine does. I feel it is an essential part of my healthy lifestyle and do not intend to stand by while it is banned.

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