When the Drug Enforcement Administration announced in late August that it would outlaw an opioid-like plant called kratom, the reaction was immediate. Kratom sellers threatened legal action. Over 130,000 people signed a petition to stop the ban. Some 400 users marched in front of the White House, with kids wearing shirts that said, “Kratom saved my mom.”
Now members of Congress are getting involved.
A bipartisan group has signed a letter asking the DEA to delay the kratom ban, calling the decision “hasty” and pointing out that there was no opportunity for public comment.
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By Thursday, about 25 House members had signed on, according to Representative Mark Pocan, a Democrat from Wisconsin who spearheaded the project with Republican Representative Matt Salmon of Arizona. The signatories include Representative John Conyers Jr., a Democrat from Michigan, the longest-serving congressman and a member of the House Judiciary Committee, and Republican Representative Dr. Dan Benishek, also of Michigan, who is a family doctor and general surgeon.
Pocan’s office plans to send the letter Monday, after collecting a few more signatures.
For Pocan, this political project is personal.
“We have a very close family friend in Colorado who has a number of ailments, but one is a mast cell disorder. Her hands get hard to move, it’s very difficult and painful for her,” he told STAT.
She tried a number of drugs, including steroids, but the only thing that helped was kratom, he said.
He became worried when he heard that the DEA was unilaterally classifying the substance as Schedule 1, which would make it as illegal as heroin, without any possibility for researchers and consumers to comment.
“They really haven’t done what I would consider due diligence,” he said. “With Schedule 1 there is supposed to be no medical use. … And there are at least three patents pending for medical uses.”
The DEA can temporarily outlaw a substance that constitutes a “public health crisis” without any outside input if the Food and Drug Administration has not approved the drug. Over the next two or three years, the Department of Health and Human Services then determines whether the drug is indeed a threat. If so, the ban becomes permanent; if not, it is reversed.
Pocan, however, is concerned that the DEA hasn’t done its research thoroughly enough.
He wanted to learn more, so he invited Susan Ash, the director of the American Kratom Association, to his office.
“It was unique,” said Ash. “I’ve been a lobbyist for much of my life, and I’ve never had an [congressional] office directly reach out asking for a face-to-face meeting.”
Last week, the night before she would lead the march in front of the White House, Ash told Pocan her own story of chronic pain, opiate addiction, and redemption through kratom. It was just one story of many that members of Congress have been hearing from constituents. They have called in to talk about using kratom as an alternative to opioids. Calls have also come from veterans who use the plant — either swallowed as a powder, taken as a pill, or drunk as a tea — to control their post-traumatic stress disorder.
The members of Congress noted that once kratom becomes illegal — even temporarily — it will be hard for research on the substance to move forward, as it has been for medical marijuana.
In early September, a DEA spokesperson told STAT that the temporary ban is “definitely going to happen as early as September 30.” The agency said it would respond to the letter from members of Congress, but would not comment until it was received.