OKLAHOMA CITY (KOKH) — The FDA is cracking down on an increasingly popular herbal drug, sold over the counter in Oklahoma.
Federal health officials say kratom is a dangerous substance that has been linked to overdose deaths, but advocates say it’s an herbal supplement addicts can use to wean themselves of harmful opioids.
Kratom comes from a plant native to southeast Asia. In low doses, it acts as a stimulant similar to caffeine. In higher doses, it has some opioid-like effects.
It isn’t FDA-approved for any kind of medical use, but that’s not stopping millions of Americans from trying it.
For Adam Hull, it all started with a car accident when he was 16 years old.
“That’s the big event that set everything in motion to where we are today, really,” Hull said.
He walked away from the wreck without a scratch but started having migraines and neck pain a few weeks later. Doctors couldn’t figure out the cause.
“Right away they gave me pain pills,” said Adam. “My tolerance would build up so fast to it. My body would just burn through it. So I’d need more and more and more and more – and that’s just how it escalates.”
Adam hid his addiction from his wife Jamie until it all came crashing down.
“All of a sudden, I wake up the next day in the ICU with a catheter,” he said. “Having no idea what happened.”
The accidental overdose was a wake-up call. Adam went through a detox facility to get off opioids for good. But withdrawal was agonizing, and his pain returned. Adam says he was hurting so bad, he couldn’t even work. That’s when he saw an article about kratom and decided to give it a try.
“ And instantly, it was like wow,” said Adam. “I felt fine, like I was completely coherent, completely normal. I wasn’t impaired at all, but I just felt good.”
The substance is sold in pill, extract or powder form. Jamie and Adam both save Kratom turned their lives around.
“We’re blessed from it,” he said. “It saved us. My marriage. It probably saved my life. I don’t know what I’d do without it, you know.”
Adam believes in kratom so much, he decided to start selling it in 2016. Their online business has grown quickly, and they’re opening a brick-and-mortar store in Midwest City.
“I see what it’s doing for other people,” Jamie said. “That’s what’s most important to me, is that we’re helping others, who need a way out of pain. We don’t want pills taking over people’s lives.”
But not everyone is convinced kratom is a cure-all. The FDA says there is no evidence it’s safe or effective for any medical use.
“I think there’s liable to be problems with taking it that aren’t yet identified, so people are going to have to be very careful,” said Dr. Hal Scofield with the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation.
A recent report from the CDC found that kratom was the cause of death in at least 91 fatal overdoses in the U.S. from July 2016 to Dec. 2017. In almost all of those cases, other drugs – like fentanyl and heroin – were also listed as contributing to the overdoses.
Phone calls about kratom to poison control centers nationwide have soared more than 50-fold. There were just 13 reported kratom exposures in 2011 and 682 in 2017.
The Oklahoma Center for Poison and Drug Information received just 10 calls about kratom last year.
“Whether that’s because there are not a lot of people using it or a lot of people are not having problems with it, I’m not sure,” said Scott Schaeffer, the director of the Oklahoma Center for Poison and Drug Information.
Studies show the most common side effects of kratom exposure are agitation and irritability, fast heart rate, nausea and drowsiness.
“In a worst case scenario, kratom can cause seizures,” said Schaeffer. “There have been reported cases of adverse effects on the liver, where the liver doesn’t function like it should.”
Schaeffer says one of the biggest issues with kratom is the lack of quality control. Since it’s unregulated, it’s hard to know exactly what’s going to be in the package you purchase.
“Like any natural substance, one batch of kratom to another may have wildly different amounts of active ingredients,” he said.
The Hulls say their products undergo multiple lab tests before they reach customers. They support oversight to make sure consumers know what they’re getting, but they don’t want to see an outright ban on kratom.
“It just makes you feel better,” Jamie said. “That’s all I wanted for him. These pills were destroying his life, and honestly they were destroying mine.”
Adam says businesses that don’t test their kratom or mix it with other substances are the ones causing issues across the country. He thinks lawmakers should crack down on those bad practices, not the drug itself.
The Hulls hope to work with Oklahoma lawmakers on a kratom bill to keep it legal here but set regulations for handling and processing the supplement.
The DEA considered making kratom illegal in 2016 but withdrew its plans after facing significant backlash. The federal agency says more research is needed on the drug.
The National Institute of Drug Abuse is currently funding two studies, totaling nearly $7 million, to better understand how kratom works. One goal of the research is to compare how it’s been used for hundreds of years in southeast Asia versus the way westerners consume it.