Proposed Bill Would Legalize Kratom in Wisconsin

A new bill introduced this week would legalize kratom, a stimulant made from the leaves of a tree native to Southeast Asia. A similar bill failed to pass in 2022, but the bill’s Republican authors are back at it. And if you’ve been on the edge of your seat waiting for Wisconsin lawmakers to legalize marijuana, you should also be paying attention to the story of this lesser-known medicinal plant.

Kratom most often takes the form of a powder, capsule, or tea that is derived from the leaves of a tree native to Southeast Asia where it is used in herbal medicine. People use kratom for its stimulant-like effects, mood enhancement, and pain relief.

On Tuesday, a group of Republican lawmakers introduced Assembly Bill 393, which would legalize the manufacture, distribution, delivery, and possession of kratom.

Kratom has been illegal in Wisconsin since 2013, and it’s listed in state statute as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, alongside substances like heroin, marijuana, and peyote.

Wisconsin is one of just six states that explicitly bans kratom, and federally, the substance isn’t regulated. The Federal Drug Administration advises that the drug isn’t appropriate for use as a dietary supplement, and also admits that there is inadequate information about its side effects.

Still, an estimated 1.7 million Americans age 12 and up were estimated to have used the drug in 2021.

Heidi Sykora is one. A retired nurse practitioner, she says kratom makes it possible for her to stay healthy and active, and manage her chronic pain from brain and spinal cord surgery.  But because kratom is illegal in Wisconsin, she has to drive hours to Illinois to get it.

“At first I was able to come to Illinois, take the kratom, increase my activity, and really get on the road to recovery. And then I’d have to go back home and literally, I was able to do half. It was like that for a year, and finally, I started staying more and more in Illinois,” Sykora says.

She says taking kratom is a safer alternative to the opioids, NSAIDS, or Tylenol given their addictive properties, long-term side effects, and her own drug sensitivities.

Some even use kratom to manage drug withdrawal symptoms or as an alternative to opioids. A user study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found that 41% of their respondents used kratom for opioid replacement. Others used the substance for pain relief, anxiety, and depression treatment.

Senator Rachael Cabral-Guevara, a Republican from Appleton, is a co-author of the bill, along with state Representatives Murphy, Brooks, and Macco and state Senators Cabral-Guevara and Felzkowski.

Cabral-Guevara, who has also worked as a nurse practitioner, says people can benefit from the drug’s medicinal effects.

“The reason I support this bill is because other states have legalization of kratom. But it also is a natural way to manage pain relief and have found that in many of my patients that have pain from injuries from cancer and so forth, that they have found this beneficial,” Senator Cabral-Guevara says.

Like the bill’s co-sponsor Senator Mary Felzkowski, Cabral-Guevara also supports the legalization of medicinal and eventually recreational marijuana. And this is in keeping with widespread public support.

But some groups, including doctors and law enforcement, are opposed. The Badger State Sheriffs Association, Wisconsin Medical Society, Wisconsin Sheriffs and Deputy Sheriffs Association opposed an earlier version of the current bill, which failed to pass in 2022 despite heavy lobbying from the American Kratom Association, a consumer advocacy group based in Virginia.

According to online lobby reporting records, the group has spent at least $200,000 lobbying for legalization from 2021 to this year.

The bill provides guidelines for the regulation of kratom products. It would restrict the inclusion of other ingredients in kratom products, would require products to be registered, and would make selling kratom to those under 21 illegal. Mac Haddow, a representative of the American Kratom Association says that these regulatory measures are essential.

“As long as it’s used responsibly and if the products are manufactured and labeled properly, it’s like any other substance like caffeine that you consume. Or even like a bottle of water, it needs to be regulated and consumed in a way that’s safely done. So that’s what this bill would do. It’s long overdue. It decriminalizes the possession and use of kratom in Wisconsin,” Mac Haddow says.

Decriminalization and regulation would become tools for harm reduction, says Haddow, and are part of a larger effort on the part of the American Kratom Association of correcting the record on kratom’s effects.

In 2021, a similar bill passed out of committee but failed to pass the state Assembly, after Democrats included an amendment that would tie legalization of kratom to the legalization of marijuana. In that go-around, even Congressman Mark Pocan urged the passage of the bill to legalize kratom.

I asked Senator Cabral-Guevara, if she thought this bill would be a gateway to legalizing marijuana overall and she said, “I think so. Very much so. And I hope so.”

The bill, AB 393, was introduced to the state Assembly on Tuesday, and heads to a public hearingnext Wednesday.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.