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Kratom, an opiate-like plant, has escaped the DEA's kiss of death — for now

Kratom has escaped the Drug Enforcement Administration’s kiss of death — Schedule I classification — at least for now.

In August, the DEA announced its intent to ban the opiate-like drug, which is derived from an indigenous plant in Southeast Asia and sometimes used to ease opioid-withdrawal symptoms. A Schedule I classification would put the drug in league with heroin and LSD, drugs with a “high potential for abuse” and “no accepted medical use.”


But on Thursday, the administration changed course after pressure from the scientific community, harm-reduction advocates, and lawmakers. “Since publishing that notice, DEA has received numerous comments from members of the public challenging the scheduling action and requesting that the agency consider those comments and accompanying information before taking further action,” the agency wrote in a Federal Register notice issued Thursday.

Derived from the coffee bean family, kratom is commonly brewed in tea in Southeast Asia and has mild stimulant and anti-inflammatory properties. In the U.S. it’s typically taken in pill form.

The proposed ban sparked a White House petition signed by 140,000 people, as well as backlash from lawmakers. A bipartisan group of 11 senators and 51 members of the House of Representatives wrote letters to acting DEA administrator Chuck Rosenberg, calling on him to change course.

The DEA had intended to ban kratom via its emergency authority, granted by Congress to swiftly tackle emerging “designer drugs” such as synthetic marijuana and so-called bath salts.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, argued that the DEA’s emergency authority is to be used for “unknown illegal synthetic street drugs that result in injuries and death.” But that description doesn’t fit kratom, which is a natural substance. “The use of this emergency authority for a natural substance is unprecedented,” he wrote.

Critics of the proposed ban see potential in kratom — or its biological source, mitragyna speciosa — as a nonaddictive, plant-based alternative for people hooked on heroin or prescription painkillers.

A 2013 study published in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, a peer-reviewed journal, found that kratom can be used as a painkiller, a muscle relaxant, and an anti-inflammatory aid, but that withdrawal after regular use could “yield adverse effects.” The researchers concluded from their data that kratom had a “therapeutic as well as an abuse potential.”

Schedule I status would not just place a ban on kratom use for at least two years. It would also limit the scope of scientific studies to assess its possible medical use in relieving chronic or acute pain conditions, or for opioid addiction, which the Department of Health and Human Services says has reached “epidemic” proportions. Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, according to federal statistics; in 2014 alone, more than 28,000 overdose deaths were linked to opioid consumption.

By comparison, the DEA has linked 15 deaths in the U.S. to kratom use over the past two years. The administration also previously cited a federal study that found that U.S. poison centers received 660 calls related to kratom exposure between 2010 and 2015, according to Forbes.