Local users don’t believe kratom is deadly and say it’s no more addictive than coffee or tea, with similar withdrawal symptoms after long-term, heavy use.
The plant-based supplement has been consumed for thousands of years, but started making headlines in 2016, when the Drug Enforcement Administration tried to temporarily place the main psychoactive constituents of the plant Mitragyna speciosa, also referred to as kratom, into the schedule I category of the Controlled Substances Act, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution previously reported.
A schedule I drug is a substance or chemical defined as a drug with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.
But kratom is not an opioid or a synthetic substance. It's a natural botanical native to tropical Southeast Asia that is part of the coffee family, according to the American Kratom Association.
R. Jackson, a Cherokee County resident and metro Atlanta teacher, said he stumbled onto kratom following the controversy last year. He said he believes the risks are overstated and misleading.
“I did some research on the herb and liked what I heard about the anti-anxiety and coffee-like energy properties that kratom possesses,” Jackson told the AJC. “I have been a fan and a regular user ever since.”
Jackson said he doesn’t feel any physical addiction to the herb and has sneaking suspicions about the motivations behind recent Federal Drug Administration and state medical examiner reports on kratom-related deaths.
Dr. Jonathan Eisenstat, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's chief state medical examiner, said toxicology reports started testing for kratom in November 2016, less than a month after the DEA’s move. He said kratom contributed to five deaths in 2016.
He said while the supplement is not a narcotic, kratom is marketed to treat pain and affects the same receptors in the brain as opioids. Case reports have associated exposure to the plant with psychosis, seizures and deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Many users believe pharmaceutical companies and lobbyists want to prevent alternative remedies from cutting into their drug profits.
Scott Sutton, who plays drums in Atlanta-based band Caulfield, said kratom saved his life from opioid addiction.
“Kratom kills, that's funny to me!” Sutton said. “If that was the case, I would probably be dead now — and a lot of other people that I know.”
Sutton said he doesn’t believe Eisenstat’s report that states 11 people died in 2017 because of kratom. Of those 11, Eisenstat said nine people had other drugs in their system at the time of death.
Jackson said he questions the idea that kratom killed these people because correlation doesn’t imply causation.
“If I drop dead of a heart attack right now, I’m going to have two cups of coffee in my system,” he said. “Does that mean it killed me?”
Some users have gone so far as to say the crackdown on kratom is a witch hunt designed to banish anything other than prescription medication, which GBI Director Vernon Keenan recently said is the leading cause of drug-related overdose deaths in Georgia.
“They're just pushing the Big Pharma agenda,” Sutton said. “They're trying to take the plant from us and then make some kind of synthetic kratom and give it back to us through insurance and a prescription.”
According to a study published earlier this year, a majority (68.9 percent) of users reported having used the drug as a means of reducing or abstaining from non-prescription opioids and/or heroin, and 64.1 percent reported using kratom as a substitute for non-prescription opioids and/or heroin.
While Jackson is not in recovery, he said if kratom helps those who are he’s only more for the herb.
“The fact that kratom also helps so many with opiate addictions in this day and age strengthens my desire to advocate for its legality,” Jackson said.
Sutton, meanwhile, believes kratom could become dangerous if the government gets involved.
“If there's a black market, kratom is probably going to be laced with fentanyl and other types of drugs and then people really will start dying from kratom,” Sutton said. “It will be a bad situation if they ban it. Things will get worse with the opioid epidemic.”