In a move that may indicate easing drug policies, Thailand has decriminalized a plant used to relieve pain, a decision expected to lessen crowding in prisons and impact thousands of people facing charges for its use or possession.
Kratom, a plant native to several Southeast Asian countries, was removed from Thailand’s list of controlled narcotics this week at a time when U.S. agencies remain skeptical about its use and have tried to ban it without much success.
Also called mitragyna speciosa, kratom has long been used in some Thai communities to treat a variety of ailments, from anxiety and pain to diarrhea and insomnia.
In recent years, it gained popularity in the U.S. where it has been sought to help with opioid addiction. The powdered leaves can be consumed in different ways, such as capsules or tablets.
The decision to decriminalize the drug was announced on Tuesday, and the law is expected to come into effect 30 days afterwards. There will be immediate benefits for many, including nearly 1,300 people whose kratom-related charges will be dropped, and 121 inmates who will be released, according to local media.
“We understand penalties will be going up for organized crime offences like trafficking and related money laundering, and down for couriers and small street-level distributors that are usually selling to support their personal use. Users will be sent to treatment instead of prison,” Jeremy Douglas, Regional Representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), told VICE World News.
“We’ve been working with the government for several years on changes to different aspects of the drug law and related policies, and we’re really pleased with what’s happening. We see it as a big step in the right direction.”
Thailand has relaxed some drug laws in recent years, although its much-anticipated and potentially lucrative medical marijuana industry has yet to take off.
Kratom’s compounds can interact with opioid receptors in the brain and critics say not enough is known about the herb. They argue it can be abused or result in dangerous side effects. But advocates say millions rely on it to control their opioid cravings, and that reports about overdoses are misleading because other more powerful drugs are often involved.
Thailand is studying the potentially beneficial effects for addicts. In small amounts it also has stimulant properties, and one senior Thai drug official compared it to caffeine.
The plant is the subject of fierce debate in the U.S., where a handful of states have enacted bans. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned against its use and is now seeking public input before making further recommendations to the World Health Organization.
Drug policy expert Mason Marks, a senior fellow at the Petrie-Flom Center at Harvard Law School, told VICE World News that the U.S. states that have criminalized kratom should walk it back, and that the FDA should not back a federal or international ban.
“Supporting a global ban undermines the autonomy of nations that do not wish to criminalize kratom, including Thailand,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story cited a local media report that said 12,000 kratom-related cases would be dropped. The figure in the report is closer to 1,300.