The kratom tree, perhaps the answer to Thailand's meth epidemic. (Photo via)
You know what khat is, right? Well kratom is like that: a mild, leaf-shaped stimulant that gives you a barely noticeable buzz if you chew it for long enough. Both stimulants have also attracted the ire of politicians—while Home Secretary Theresa May has promised to ban khat from Britain soon, kratom has been outlawed in Thailand for the past 70 years. But recently the Thai Minister for Justice, Pradit Sintavanarong, announced that he wants the kratom leaf removed from the country's illicit drugs list. He claims it could help wean addicts off harder stimulants, like methamphetamine.
Meth has been a big deal in Thailand for the last decade or so. It's most commonly taken in a concoction known as yaba—a blend of meth and caffeine which comes in pill form that the Nazis invented to keep their soldiers marching for days. Today, the authorities estimate that nearly one in every 60 Thai citizens is a methamphetamine user. Last year, shocking new reports claimed that nearly 7,000 children—kids aged from as young as seven up to 17—had been rehabilitated for meth use within the first half of 2012 alone, while this year it emerged that yaba producers are trying to sell the drug to kids over Facebook. So now might not be a bad time to consider some new ways to tackle all that.
However, not everyone is going to support the legalization of kratom. While generally its ban has been vigourously enforced, over the past few years Thai youths have found a new way to get fucked on kratom. They've started getting turned up on something they call 4x100—a cocktail of kratom, cola, and cough syrup that is like a Thai version of sizzurp. Since then, police interest in the plant has increased, with authorities setting up sting operations in a bid to catch traffickers and raiding jungles for the plant.
Of course, where there's a drug epidemic, there's a moralizing media ready to expound on the various ways in which it's aiding the death of civil society. And that's exactly what the Thai media did.
The country's humid south is the perfect environment for the kratom plant to flourish. Unfortunately, it has also been plagued by a violent Islamist insurgency for over a decade, and local newspapers began trying to find ways to link these two things together. Some media outlets have declared that the insurgency was being funded by kratom trafficking. Militants were downing mugs of 4x100 before shooting Buddhist monks and bombing coffee shops in a bid to turn southern Thailand into the world's newest Islamic state, like Indochinese berserkers.
A meth-pipe. (Photo via)
Pascal Tanguay, a representative for the NGO Harm Reduction International, told me that the possibility of insurgents getting all riled up on 4x100 before murdering people was unlikely. "The media here has done a very good job of associating kratom with these insurgencies, but there isn’t any real evidence of it happening," he said. "The people I talked to in the south—both religious leaders and drug users—all said the same thing: If you want to be an insurgent, you have to be off drugs. They have a very strict recruitment policy and they never allow people in who are on drugs, because they feel that it distracts them from the ultimate goal: Their revolution."
Although the reports are likely to be fabricated, the idea of making the illegal element of this supposed jihad juice available over the counter isn't likely to go down well with everyone. But trusting their media implicitly is far more likely to cause them more day-to-day damage than any AK-wielding, lean-sipping Islamist camped out somewhere in the Narathiwat jungles.
Pascal explained how the media's demonization of kratom has allowed police to encroach on Thai citizens' privacy: "The police like associating kratom with terror because then they can use anti-terror legislation to search people," he told me. "I've heard of them acquiring a warrant to search a house just because there's a kratom tree in the garden."
In fact, Pascal claims, the leaf can actually have its own specific health benefits: "It is very useful for controlling diabetes," he told me. "I met a lot of people in the south who had diabetes and weren't using any insulin. They were regulating their sugar and insulin purely with kratom leaves and kratom tea."
The exact benefits of kratom have been hard to gauge as the leaves that researchers are able to get hold of have usually dried out and lost any of the alkaloids necessary for experimentation. Pascal told me, "I met a PhD student in the south who said that he can’t finish his thesis, because in order to do so he would have to become a criminal to get hold of kratom leaves. The ones he gets to use just aren’t good enough. The government doesn’t give a shit about it at the moment and just puts money in the hands of criminal gangs by banning it. Hopefully that will change soon."
The leaf was originally banned to keep drug money in the hands of the government. "Kratom was only banned in Thailand because, at the time, the government was still involved in the opium trade and it was a big source of income," Pascal explained. "They didn’t want addicts using kratom to get off opium, so they banned it to protect their revenue."
Baggies of dried kratom leaf – the form the plant comes in when bought in the West. (Photo via)
Though the leaf has history as an effective rehabilitation aid, proving the positive qualities of illegal drugs hasn't always been a surefire way of convincing ministers to decriminalize them. It appears Sintavanarong may currently be running up against the same kind of problems that western scientists touting the useful medicinal qualities of drugs like ecstasy and LSD have encountered. At the time of writing, the justice minister is still waiting to hear from the narcotics control committee on whether they will remove kratom from the restricted drugs list.
There were efforts to decriminalize the drug in both 2004 and 2009, but according to Boonchai Somboonsuk—the Thai FDA chief—those cases are now void in light of the many changes and developments since 2009. And by "changes and developments," I assume he meant an increase in the meth consumption already ravaging a great deal of the Thai population, all of whom are in desperate need of something to help combat their addictions.
The United States's news headlines recently mentioned both meth and kratom, and scientists looking into opiate withdrawal drugs have been testing the leaf's use as a cheaper, natural alternative to more expensive synthetic medication like methadone. Unfortunately for those scientists—and any heroin addicts who don't want to be heroin addicts any more—kratom has already been called "America's next big drug scare" and plenty of media sources and legislators are fretting about it, putting it in danger of being criminalized and cutting off access to scientists currently studying the promising rehabilitation aid. In fact, the substance has been on the DEA's watchlist since 2004, it's already banned for minors in Louisiana and concerns are being raised by lawmakers in a number of other states.
Grant Smith, from the US Drug Policy Alliance told me, "The tendency of the government when a new drug comes out is just to ban it. They already banned 26 different compounds of synthetic drugs [legal highs] last year. That just lumps the responsibility on law enforcement and doesn’t help." Continuing, he said, “Drugs have always been a tender subject in the States. People panic about what they don’t understand, especially with something foreign, like kratom, coming from Asia. We would like to see things like this properly regulated by the government so producers can prove that they’re not harmful to people, but—at the moment—the DEA are just left to deal with it and they're already overstretched."
So while kratom may be saved by a progressive approach in Thailand, the War on Drugs might prevent research to help tackle meth addiction in the US. The key in both countries is to approach the potential for kratom as a rehabilitative drug with a degree of rational thought—ignoring the claims that it's making Islamists go nuts in Thai jungles—to help find a way to cure the meth epidemic blighting the two countries. Unfortunately, if the past is anything to go by, legislators' approach to drugs are normally anything but rational.
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