Herbal Heroin?

In Buzz, November 2021 by Melissa Howsam17 Comments

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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. 

“I mean, they weren’t running around trying to eat people or anything—but they were just out of it. It’s not right.”

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

Kratom: 2016

  • 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.

Kratom: 2017

  • FDA issues public health advisory on kratom.

Kratom: 2018

  • FDA produces evidence of “opioid properties.”
  • DHHS recommends ban on kratom compounds. 

Kratom: 2019

  • 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.

Kratom: 2021

  • 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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Comments

  1. Your article is irresponsible at best. You’ve fallen into being guided by those who try and instill fear and misinformation about subjects they know nothing about. Your purpose of writing this article has nothing to do with a public safety concern. It’s to parrot information that’s nothing but opinionated and misguided. Reporting single subjective 2nd hand personal experiences is not how to get accurate and objective, researched, peer reviewed and published truth to your audience and not just be a one sided fear inducing journalistic mess. Mentioning what the FDA thinks about it is not a scientific source, they say the same about caffeine and every single herbal supplement out there. Try and do your journalistic duty and stick to things you know like nature and travel attractions in NC.

  2. This article is fear mongering and poor research – which if you’ve been paying attention the Last few decades, had lead an endless war on drugs that has made things exponentially worse. Thanks to the FDA and pharm companies you can’t trust your health care provider! WE HAVE THE RIGHT TO BE HEALTHY WITHOUT YOUR PERMISSION.Stop making kratom out to be a new villain when it’s a solution to millions. Heres a thought- maybe research how there’s a war on Fentanyl and the FDA approved DSUVIA.

  3. This is an incredibly misinformed article. Kratom saves lives.

  4. Please reconsider your career title. Why would you not do your due diligence and report on a life saving experience as well. Why not attack the energy drink industry, essential oil or perhaps any and all items with Herbal or Not Aproved on the label. I’m all in on betting when any Government agency figures out how to financially gain from this…it will be legal across the board.

  5. I couldn’t even make it through this whole load of nonsense. Another naturally occurring plant that they want to take away. Schedule 1 drug???? Please…. but then allow the sales of alcohol lol. How many lives are destroyed or effected by that legal substance? Crazy. Kratom has been around for centuries with no problems. They just want to take it all for themselves and tax it later and try to look good turning a profit lol it helped me in a big way. If…if there are any minor withdrawal symptoms which is usually not that bad. Compared to something like suboxone. Another substance legalized to profit. Basically synthetic heroin. But trust me kratom can do way more good than bad for people who properly use it. I have never seen anyone all crazy high out of their mind on this stuff lol. Quit trying to scare people. If you somehow take way too much you’ll most likely throw it up. Just like anything really. At least that’s how my body tends to work. Sorry I’m kinda heated but that’s enough for now.

  6. unreal. I had a serious injury that left me hopelessly addicted to pharm pain meds because at that time the doctors were handing them out like candy. I’m not the only one! millions of Americans have died from pain meds! Kratom was the only answer to help me get off pain meds. I don’t take it anymore but this article is completely wrong.
    Big pharma has been killing people in this country forever. They have gotten filthy rich doing it too. Kratom does NOT kill people.
    Just because it works on the same receptors in the brain doesn’t mean it’s dangerous like heroin. This seems like a common person looking to get reads for their terrible uneducated opinions about something that can actually be quite beneficial to people.
    Look at MJ it will soon be legal in federally. The reason it took this long was because they wanted the money from locking people in privately owned prisons. Get real. Grow up and find someone else to pick on. Everyone knows this article is just not true.

  7. This article is like Reefer Madness, but a lot less fun. Just a bunch of misinformation and exaggeration.

  8. Shamelessly irresponsible article. There has never, ever been a case of these serious side effects where Kratom was the only substance in the persons body. Many people use Kratom to get off stronger drugs (many of them FDA- Approved!).

    The science is very clear when you read peer reviews studies that aren’t sponsored by the FDA or pharmaceutical companies. Kratom is vastly safer than most FDA approved drugs. Ever heard of an overdose on Kratom? No, you haven’t because it’s impossible. The cool thing about Kratom is, while some alkaloids are opioid agonists, it also contains many alkaloids that are antagonists to opioid receptors. It’s like a build in mechanism to prevent overdose… provided by nature! It is truly a miracle tree and this article is just fear mongering garbage.

  9. Kratom saved my life in 2011 from severe DDD pain. I was able to lose 130 lbs after getting active again after 11 years of suffering. I chose a plant over a pill (never even tried pills) and I thank God for Kratom every day. This article is loaded with lies, misinformation, and FDA overtones of prohibition. Comparison to Alabama is ridiculous because they never did a speck of research. Ask Mack Butler how it happened there? Or Jeff Sessions. Both should be ashamed of what they did. Here in NY there’s no issues with it whatsoever.

  10. Nothing in this article is factual. This is just hot gossip for a quick buck, and frankly it’s lazy. Kratom is not a party drug, nor is it anything remotely close to illicit substances. The silver lining here is that I doubt that the readers of this publication are as willfully ignorant as the author.

  11. It’s not anything like heroin, please stop. This is possibly the worst kratom article I’ve read in 7 years experience. It changes lives, it’s not a “party drug”. I get no high from it but it makes my pain bearable. It isn’t going to kill me like the narcotics my pain management had me on. I had to get away from them, they were bullies and played games with my desire to not be in pain. Kratom saved me! I’m 64, older like most kratom users, not teens at a freaking party.

    It would not be controversial except that the FDA has lied about it. It’s just a leaf from a tree that is related to the coffee plant. It’s helping people detox from things that really can kill them.

    This article is full of lies. Shame! You took something that helps pain issues in a time where doctors are cutting us off prescribed drugs and made it sound horrible.

  12. Wow! Please do your research! Comparing a natural plant to a street drug like heroin is very irresponsible. Kratom literally saved my life! I was an alcoholic who tried everything…rehab, AA, etc and nothing worked. I tried kratom and it took those cravings completely away and I did NOT get high from it at all! After taking it for three years, I was able to quit taking it with no problems. The FDA, specifically, Scott Gottileb, is the one who has tried to demonize this plant that helps so many people. It is estimated that over a million people consume kratom on a daily basis.

    There are cases of adulterated kratom, which is why the American Kratom Association has introduced legislation in various states called the Kratom Consumer Protection Act. This is to ensure that only pure kratom is being sold to consumers…this requires that vendors do vigorous lab testing on their products to ensure its safety.

    And it makes me REALLY angry when someone overdoses with MULTIPLE substances in their system, but they blame it on kratom. No one has ever died from kratom alone…Please do your research!

  13. You can never get “high” from kratom tea. It’s a cousin of the coffee plant. Consumed in Asia for over 1,000 years and no problems. Yet it comes to America 20 years ago and on day back in 2012 the rehabs and pharmacies got mad bc people began to consume it in place of prescriptions. Now it’s demonized by the ignorant. Reckless journalism. You failed to do any due diligence. In fact just 3 years ago High Point University did a study on kratom and found it does not cause addiction any more than caffeine. There are numerous studies ongoing now on kratom and 7-hydroxy bc they are looking at that component to see what it can be used for as it is helpful. Dr Chris McCurdy is the worlds leading scientist on kratom and he has been studying it with the universities of Alabama and Florida for several decades. Stop the fear mongering. Try on 4 oz drink of kratom tea. And you will laugh at all of this as it is very foolish and unnecessary.

  14. Kratom is nothing like heroin at all. Kratom is a natural plant and it helps a lot of people. In my experience it just gives me energy while also relaxing my mind and uplifting my mood

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