Marc T. Swogger is an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center, where Elaine Hart is an associate scientist in the department of immunology.
UPDATED OCTOBER 19, 2016, 3:21 AM
People suffering from chronic pain are having difficulty getting effective treatment, in part because of doctors’ legitimate fears about prescribing opiates. These fears stem from a recognition that millions of people are suffering from prescription opiate and heroin addictions.
There is little evidence that kratom poses a serious public health risk, but criminalizing it would.
Kratom has quietly become an alternative treatment for pain and opiate addiction and our own qualitative study of people who use kratom suggests that, with few harmful side effects, people are successfully using the plant to get off of opiates and to effectively treat their pain.
While kratom does itself have some potential for abuse, we have no solid scientific data to link kratom to serious adverse effects.
If the Drug Enforcement Administration were to schedule kratom, it could cripple research into the plant’s efficacy and potential dangers while making criminals of kratom users. Is it even necessary to note that prohibition rarely has the intended effects, that the drug war has been costly and ineffective, or that too many people are incarcerated for low-level drug offenses?
The D.E.A. initially planned to allow no public comment. (Meanwhile a kratom derivative is in Phase III clinical trials by the Food and Drug Administration.)
Regardless of the government’s motivations for attempting to criminalize kratom, the fact remains that there is little evidence that kratom poses a serious public health risk. By contrast, criminalizing it would seem to pose quite a public health risk by reducing options for people who are in pain or addicted – many of whom will not present at treatment facilities – and by increasing prison populations.
Much more scientific study of the risks and benefits of this plant is needed. In the meantime, the D.E.A. has inadequate justification for limiting the options of vulnerable citizens.