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A new heroin-like drug is sweeping the streets… and it’s legal in NC.
Word on the street is there’s a trendy drug in town (and sweeping the country) that’s dangerously addictive—but 100% legal in NC… and as easy to get here as a pack of smokes or vape juice.
Banned in six states (Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Rhode Island, Vermont, Wisconsin) for its possible addictive properties, this opioid-like powdery herbal substance—called kratom—has even been classified as a Schedule 1 drug (think heroin, LSD) in Alabama.
Highly controversial—with mixed opinions and ordinances on the overall accessibility and legality of the substance—there seems to be no question that kratom’s side effects can be dangerous. Arguably the “it” party drug, kratom makes for an easy swap for the highly illegal cocaine sniffs and heroin hits that preceded it.
Pronounced KRAY-tum, the substance is, at its root, a Southeast Asia evergreen tree whose leaves have psychotropic (aka mind-altering) effects, as they contain chemicals that, when ingested—quite frankly—get you high. Lower doses deliver you that stimulating cocaine-like effect, while higher doses (which are reportedly the most popular usage) render an opiate-like high and euphoric effects en masse.
And it’s not a gateway drug. It’s a drug people of all ages and stations are taking (some in very large doses) to get high, or to enhance or alter their high (say from drinking, opioids, other meds)—and it’s even linked to fatal overdoses (though many cases have involved mixing kratom with other substances).
Unregulated, as it’s not approved for any medical use, the dried leaves are sold as powder, capsules, extracts, gum and tea leaves (which some people even smoke) and are usually marked “not for human consumption”—and are known widely as kratom, but also go by such street names as herbal, herbal speedball, thom, ketum, ithang, kakuam, biak and so on.
One Raleigh resident, Jesse Mosey, thought she had never heard of it by any name when a friend recently passed her a handful (literally) of kratom pills on their way out Downtown. “Here,” he said. “Take these. You’ll feel great.”
She declined—and watched her friend shove the entire handful in his mouth, as did others in their group. Then it got scary. “They were on another wave,” says Mosey. “It slowed them down tremendously. Their reaction time was nonexistent; they were out of their heads with thought process; one of them was throwing up; some itching, sweating … it was basically the same as if they had taken opioids—and they were addicted.”
It wasn’t until an epiphany the next morning that Mosey realized she knew what kratom is—and how prevalent it is. “I asked my brother about it the next day,” she says. “I know a lot of people back home [on the North Carolina coast] who use kratom and didn’t realize it until that night. They are really dependent on it. It’s everywhere.”
Local Natalie Philips has also seen firsthand the dark side of kratom after witnessing her friends’ usage, volume intake and reliance on the substance. “One thing I will not forget is, one time, we were going to brunch, and they took a few spoonfuls–[they] usually only take one or a little more–prior to leaving the house,” she says. … “At the restaurant one friend got so sick—started sweating and looked like she was gonna pass out, before throwing up profusely… afterward, she said she must have OD’d.”
Given kratom’s key chemical components—the psychoactive mitragynine and the even more-potent 7-hydroxymitragynine—Philips’ surmise makes sense. While there is more mitragynine (a pain reliever traditionally used to treat such common ailments as wounds, fever, muscle soreness) in kratom, 7-hydroxymitragynine is 13 times more potent than morphine and 46 times more potent than mitragynine.
According to the FDA, these kratom compounds bind to mu-opioid receptors in the brain (the same ones activated when you take heroin or pain pills). Ironically, one of kratom’s first known uses—beyond 19th century traditional medicine—was in 1836, to treat an opioid addiction. Kratom has likewise been used for ages in the U.S. as a holistic herbal remedy for chronic or acute pain (think opioid Rx alternative), anxiety or depression, as well as an aid for those battling to overcome an opioid addiction.
And, aye, there’s the rub. Just as kratom has been subbed to replace opioid prescriptions, alleviate heroin withdrawal symptoms, reduce meth intake and more, its very opioid-like effects make it highly addictive—and are what can lead to abuse.
While kratom seems to be picking up in popularity, the controversy, just like the substance, is not new. Back in 2016, Senate Bill 830, sponsored by Republican State Sen. Thomas McInnis, attempted to add kratom to the controlled substance list. But kratom advocates highlighted misleading information within the bill and petitioned against it. Thus, a rewrite was born. House Bill 747, the current state legislation on kratom, exists with only the requirement of age restriction (you must be over the age of 18 to buy it).
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that there have been published cases of kratom exposure associated with psychosis and seizures. On top of this, the Drug Enforcement Agency intended to classify the product as a Schedule 1 drug, but the federal level saw parallels to NC’s own prohibitory hiccup as they faced demonstrations from kratom advocates, and the proposition was halted.
Over recent years, the fate of this herbal speedball has been in limbo (see timeline below). But the FDA’s current stance reads clear. This May, FDA Acting Commissioner of Food and Drugs Dr. Janet Woodcock tweeted, “There are currently no FDA-approved therapeutic uses for products containing kratom, and the FDA has identified significant safety concerns associated with its use.”
Yet despite the warnings, kratom remains unregulated and seems to be flying largely under the radar… and some people in positions of power continue to resist controlling the substance, as do proponents of either the drug or the freedom of choice.
“I personally do not have a problem with it,” says Philips, despite what she’s witnessed firsthand. “To me, it’s like marijuana—as long as it’s not abused in great forms, then why should it be an issue?“
Local Jeff Campbell, who, too, has witnessed kratom use by friends, echoes the sentiment: “I don’t know of any major side effects, but people should be able to choose what they put in their bodies.” Key words—“know of any major side effects.”
Mosey disagrees. “It’s so scary to think this is legal,” she says. “I mean, they weren’t running around trying to eat people or anything—but they were just out of it. It’s not right. … You definitely don’t become dependent on marijuana. And people get withdrawals after taking kratom for a period of time.”
To date, while it remains legal in NC, the debate continues—and it looks like it’s high time for some further scientific research and a good old-fashioned PSA.
*All names were changed to protect individuals’ identities.
KRATOM REGULATION TIMELINE
- DEA announces intent to place Mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine on the Schedule 1 drug list.
- DC protest opposing the DEA ban, where Botanical Education Alliance Director Travis Lowin declared the DEA “has failed Americans in its efforts to combat the opioid epidemic, and targeting kratom will make the situation worse.”
- DEA withdraws notice of intent and opens official public comment period.
- FDA issues public health advisory on kratom.
- FDA produces evidence of “opioid properties.”
- DHHS recommends ban on kratom compounds.
- The FDA increases warnings to sellers labeling the drug as a supplement that treats health concerns (pain, anxiety, addiction). Only FDA-approved drugs can make such declarations.
- U.S. Marshalls seize 207,000+ units of dietary supplements containing kratom from a manufacturer in Florida at the FDA’s request, worth $1.3 million.
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