Plant That Gets You High and Reduces Opiate Addiction Is Taking Off in the US—And It’s Legal

October 14, 2014 |
Why are people across the U.S. chewing on the small, glossy leaves of the Southeast Asian kratom tree? An ancient plant medicine related to coffee, it produces a high that’s both euphoric and legal. Kratom (Mitragyna speciosa) has long been used in Thailand and Malaysia to relieve pain, settle the stomach and reduce opiate dependence. Now it’s taking off in the West.

According to SageWisdom.org, kratom leaves can be chewed fresh or dry, powdered, or brewed into a tea. It is not usually smoked, because the “amount of leaf that constitutes a typical dose is too much to be smoked easily.” It’s most commonly sold in powdered form in packets, both online, in head shops and in kava bars, alcohol-free bars where people can consume tea made from the legal Polynesian kava root. An ounce costs between $20 and $30, which is enough kratom for one very strong dose*, or several more mild doses.

The fact that kratom can mitigate the painful effects of opiate withdrawl is significant, given that heroin use has reached staggering rates in the U.S. A report by the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy estimated 1.5 million chronic heroin users in the US, which doesn’t account for users who use heroin fewer than four days a month.

While it is regularly used to curb opiate addiction by reducing the withdrawal symptoms, kratom itself can be addictive. One mother in South Florida told the local CBS news the story of her 17-year-old son’s spiral into kratom addiction after he tried the plant at a kava bar with friends. She blames the addiction for her son’s eventual suicide, saying he was “not the same person,” after using kratom.

While it remains popular in underground circles, kratom has been illegal in Thailand since 1943 (it’s also banned in Malaysia, Burma and Australia). However, as Fox News reported, “Thai officials are considering reversing the 70-year-old ban on kratom, due to the plant’s value in weaning addicts off of opiates.”

Despite the potential for addiction, people have used kratom as a stimulant and a medicine for thousands of years. As Fox News reported, “The plant also enjoys a legendary use for extending the duration of sexual intercourse,” and “it mostly enjoys a long history of safe use.”

A Erowid.com user described his experience with “Premium Thai Kratom” as powerfully relaxing and pleasant:

“I start to feel a very warm sensation in my ankles and calves that is very similar to what I felt when I took hydrocodone after getting my appendix removed. My legs feel tingly and altogether it is a very pleasurable sensation. Walking around or excessive movement seems to reduce these effects substantially, however. Mentally, I am clear headed, and able to concentrate perfectly on the television. Waves of slight euphoria come occasionally, and my mood is elevated. I feel content, and happy to be alive on this planet.”

*Most people use far less than an ounce per dose, and new users are not advised to try more than 2-3 grams.

April M. Short is an associate editor at AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @AprilMShort.

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