Kratom — a supplement made from the leaves of an evergreen tree indigenous to Thailand and Southeast Asia — made headlines late last summer. In August, the Drug Enforcement Agency announced its plan to temporarily ban the substance by classifying it “as illegal as heroin,” via an emergency scheduling decision that’s typically reserved for public-health crises. (Earlier in the summer, the CDC released a report calling the plant “an emerging public-health threat,” noting a surge in a kratom-related calls to poison-control centers.) By October, however — following weeks of noisy outcry — the DEA withdrew that plan, and instead invited the public to submit their testimonies about using the product.
By the December 1 deadline, more than 22,000 people had responded, mostly telling stories about how they relied on the plant for easing their anxiety, PTSD, chronic pain, or struggles with opioid withdrawal, and how restricting access to it would destroy their lives. The “kratom community” of activists, vendors, and consumers exists largely online, and the DEA’s highly visible call for comment brought this passionate group out of the shadows, creating a public archive of anecdotes about the plant’s effectiveness for the very first time. For now, kratom remains legal in the U.S. (with the exception of a handful of states), and it seems that these stories about kratom may have helped rescue it from a scheduling decision that would have restricted access.
At least for the time being. No one knows what will happen with kratom under the Trump administration, but researchers like Jack Henningfield, a Johns Hopkins behavioral-psychology professor and health policy and abuse-liability researcher, echo consumers’ concerns about banning the plant. “If you make it Schedule 1, you kill research and create a black market, and that’s scary,” said Henningfield, who helped pull together a comprehensive report on kratom for the DEA’s scheduling decision. While preparing that review, his team was unable to find evidence of a single death where kratom use alone was the clear cause; instead, the trouble often seems to come when kratom is used in addition to other substances, as a case study in the journal Addiction described in 2008. Henningfield’s team also found no evidence of child poisoning. (The CDC, for its part, reports some serious potential side effects, including psychosis and seizures.)
Even so, Henningfield points out that most people who are using the substance report experiencing extreme benefits — a good comparison would be nicotine gum. Restricting access to such supplements, Henningfield said, is not what the emergency scheduling act is for.
With the fate of kratom’s legality still unknown, Science of Us talked in depth with kratom users from across the country. Here, three of them discuss how it’s impacted their lives.
Katie, 41, Detroit
Tell me about when you started using.
I began injecting heroin when I was 18. But my substance use began with alcohol and weed when I was 13. That was the same year I went to my first mental facility. My biological mom died when I was 9, and my dad remarried within a year. Things were bad, and when I threatened to kill myself I was sent to a psychiatric hospital. When I got out I started getting high every day. You name it: Acid. Weed. Inhalants.
Were you medicated or institutionalized as an adolescent?
Oh, yes! I have a very bad memory, but I could list a few of the drugs: Prozac, buy Wellbutrin online, mostly antidepressants. It seemed like the prescriptions would work for a while, and then I would build up a tolerance, so I would go back on drugs and stop taking my prescriptions. Then I’d get get new meds and try again. It was like a cycle that never ended. I went to rehab again when I was 16. That was a long-term facility.
Did that longer stint help?
I guess not, as I started using heroin the minute I got out. I met up with a guy I’d known as a kid and he introduced me to it. When I look back, it’s clear he just needed help financing his habit.
It escalated so fast. I started snorting heroin. Within a month, I was smoking crack — then I was shooting up. About a year later, I was dancing in strip clubs. One night I got caught with drug paraphernalia and I was sent to prison. The court ordered me to rehab. I started using again the day I got out. Then I began working on the street. I joined an escort agency.
One day I woke up so sick, I had to score, and that meant leaving my son. I can still picture his little face covered in tears, chasing me down the street. He was about 7. My husband was sick of it — I’d often go missing for days. My son knew I was escorting. The number of times I relapsed in his lifetime, I knew I just couldn’t keep doing this to him.
I was at the end of my rope.
When did you hear about kratom?
When I was in this especially dark place, I Googled “heroin alternatives.” I started getting hits for something called kratom. There were even kratom Facebook groups. I joined them. I lurked for a bit and then I finally ordered some samples. The problem was, I didn’t really know how to take it, so when I first tried it I thought it was bullshit. I was like, Nah. This is not going to help.
But you tried again?
Shortly after my failed attempt I was talking to a friend who mentioned that her father worked at a head shop out in Nebraska. He’d been going on and on about this plant and how so many addicts were using it to recover. He kept telling her: This is crazy but it really works, I have so many customers who come in and they are so thankful for it. He ended up shipping my dad a whole bunch of Maeng Da, which is probably the most-known type.
This time, I started taking it while I was quitting heroin and crack. And this time, I didn’t have any physical withdrawal symptoms. None of the puking, shitting, shaking, none of that pain. So I was like, Okay, well, wait a minute. Then I got more active online. I reached out and said, Well, I feel great physically but emotionally I feel horrible, and the advice was uniform: Stick it out. So I did. After about a month I started to get emotional and physiological benefits.
In what way? Can you describe exactly how it makes you feel?
It doesn’t make me feel anything but … normal. I don’t have any physical pain, but I don’t feel numb like I did when I took prescription meds.
I feel stable. I don’t have any brain fog. I am clear and focused and I feel so much less depressed. My energy levels are higher.
I’ve been clean for six months, and I feel great. As long as I exercise 15 minutes a day and take my kratom, I’m good. I’m not drowsy or out of it. I sometimes hear people say that they feel euphoric — I don’t ever get that. I just get a sense of normal, which is how I felt in prison, which is probably the only time I was off every single thing. (I had the worst withdrawal ever, alone in a cell, so even though I could have easily scored in prison, I didn’t.)
How much do you take?
I started with three capsules. That wasn’t enough, so I took three more. So I was going six capsules about every three hours. At first, I didn’t understand that you can’t really generalize dosage, and I’m pretty hardened given I have been using opiates since I was 13. Now I take about four teaspoons three times a day.
It probably costs me about $30 a week. When I was using heroin it was more like $300 a day.
Do you still identify as an addict? I imagine that it’s also nice to have that community of kratom users online who you can talk to — but do you ever worry you are just addicted to another substance?
I did struggle with that. I did worry, Will I have to be on kratom for the rest of my life? What are the long-term effects of this? But I am going to have to be on antidepressants, anyway, so I would rather be on something that doesn’t have any side effects, harm my body (as far as we know), take me away from my family, and put me in danger.
Have you experienced any negative effects?
The only side effect I’ve had is constipation and a bit of weight gain — I think they are related. I’ve been taking coconut oil and doing cleanses. The culprit is dehydration. It is always emphasized to drink lots of water while taking kratom, but it’s almost like I’m not as thirsty when taking it.
What’s your day-to-day life like at the moment?
I’m caring for my mother-in-law. I hadn’t been able to do that before, because I was never around. My husband drives trucks, so I have to care for the kids when he’s gone. At the end of the school year in 2015, I couldn’t even get out of bed to take them to school. And now I’m going to their functions or sport events, no matter how uncomfortable I feel. My stepdaughter even lets me be seen with her in public, because she’s not embarrassed of me anymore. My son knows everything — I’m going to cry. Just last night he said, “It’s been almost six months, Mom. I am just so proud of you. You did it!” This was all so very hard on him.
Andrew, 43, Maryland
Tell me about yourself.
I joined the navy in 2003. I’m not on active duty anymore, because I lost the use of one of my hands in Guantanamo. But I served for a little over nine years, in the Middle East and Asia. Eventually my wife wanted me back, so I moved to Washington, D.C. But I was so used to being deployed, it was hard to assimilate.
What was the difference? Not as much happening?
Right, and it’s tough to slow down. So I wound up going to Guantanamo — well, I volunteered. This was 2009 — we were told we were shutting the place down. During the first two weeks, a group of detainees tried to injure themselves. We’d restrained a man so the doctors could check him out, but he was trying to bite my hand. I guess I moved it enough to give him some leverage, so he reared up and started slamming his head into the floor on top of my hand. I wound up with severe nerve damage and misplaced bones. Guantanamo is like a travel-brochure picture of a Caribbean island, but with a giant barbed-wire detention center. You wake and fall asleep hearing the call to prayer. It’s a very surreal audiovisual clash of cultures and ideologies. They just put my hand in a cast, and they didn’t have an MRI so they didn’t know the exact damage. It slowly degenerated over the next 18 months.
There’s this idea that those who go down there don’t have any empathy. I thought we were going to close the place down. It was normal to have urine or feces thrown at you. You spent the day hearing detainees yell dirty words in multiple languages, just screaming. That breaks you. Looking back, Gitmo was the tipping point.
Did that feeling of helplessness pile up when you came back?
Yes. I was back in an arm brace so people would see the injury and the first thing they’d say was, “Well, I hope you got one in on him!” I knew they didn’t understand my pain.
I was very irritable. I went for days without sleeping. My routine became automatic. Go to work and come home. My wife was worried and told me I should get some help.
I saw a psychologist who specializes in combat stress. She said I was showing every sign of PTSD. They had me on an SSRI, but I was having a lot of weird side effects. I think I had about seven actual, full-on, proper panic attacks. I probably took eight different types of medication in a year. My blood pressure would spike — change it up. Anxiety? Try this. That makes me stay awake all night — okay, try that. When I finally started sleeping, my nightmares were so severe I was ruined for the whole next day.
Did you reach a point where you couldn’t function?
In September of 2012, I’d completely lost the use of my hand. I started having severe tics, and one day, I was sitting in my cubicle, where I had a seizure or some type of a stroke. I couldn’t form any words — they were trying to talk to me, but the dystonia in my face, the tics and the jutting in my jaw, were so severe that I couldn’t speak. They had to call an ambulance.
I was medicated so heavily, I was a drooling zombie. By fall 2014, nothing controlled the tics. The pain was awful, and I was taking about three or four Vicodin each day. Some days, I was even having to take an opioid pain medication called Dilaudid. I was popping Ativan, Klonopin, Lexapro like candy. I was injecting Imitrex for my cluster headaches — they call them suicide headaches for a reason. The pain was bad enough at times, like your head is being sawed in half, that I thought I should just stick a gun in my mouth.
Imitrex stops them immediately, but it also causes anxiety, so when the headache went I felt like I was having a heart attack. I was on so much medication.
That’s no way to live.
My wife would help me get up in the morning, and then I’d sit on the couch, turn on the TV, and drift in and out of sleep all day and night. That went on for years. The tics weren’t going away and I was struggling to form words.
… Enter kratom?
I think one benefit that the military and VA doctors have is they’re not beholden to the pharmaceutical or insurance industries — they can think outside the box.
I got lucky. I was sent to a very experienced doctor, and I said, “I can’t be trapped like this. I’ve lost years. There must be something else.” He said, “There’s nothing more I can prescribe you. Maybe you need to explore natural solutions.” That was the point at which I knew I had to figure out something or I’d die.
When I got home I spent hours Googling, and I kept running across people talking about this thing called kratom. After a few weeks, I went back to that doctor and said, “I found something I want to try, but I need you to kind of give me your understanding of it, because honestly I think this is crazy. If this plant does what people are saying it does then this is unreal.”
I thought it was impossible. Why are people only talking about it in secret online forums? It’s not even illegal in most states. But then, our culture doesn’t really accept men saying, Hey, I’m in pain and doctors aren’t helping. Men, especially, aren’t encouraged to tell people, Look, I am in serious psychological and physical pain and I really need help.
Your doctor sounds very smart. What was his take?
He looked up the DEA report, and then he looked up what the FDA has to say about it and then he said, “Now that we’ve done the formalities, let’s go deeper.” I loved that man. He explained that the plant has some interesting properties according to these studies from Thailand and Malaysia. He reiterated that he couldn’t recommend it, but said that if I felt comfortable trying it out, it would probably help and didn’t seem dangerous. It was a nudge-nudge, wink-wink moment. I spent two more weeks reading everything I could find. I joined any kind of forum. People must have thought I was a lunatic, because I was asking every single weird question imaginable: What are the withdrawals like? What is the addiction potential? Is there an LD50 rating? I wanted to know everything. I could only find anecdotal evidence, but there was so much.
I knew that head shops carried it, but it was expensive. I finally ordered a one-ounce sample. Then, for the next two weeks, I tapered off down to the most limited dose of anything I could take and stopped a couple of meds completely. I was in a lot of pain, but I had to get to a point where I could feel things so that I would know if kratom worked. I started with a red-vein strain, as I had read that was the most effective for pain and anxiety. I made a tea with half a teaspoon, and I didn’t get any kind of relief.
That must have been such a disappointment.
I thought, This is all a lie! But I kept trying.
I experimented with toss and wash — you know, throw it and some juice in your mouth — and that’s when it started working. Apparently, if it’s diluted too much, it doesn’t break down very well. It was a lot of trial and error. I reached out to forums and got tips, and I would take notes and I kept a journal. I began to I feel a little better. It took a few weeks. Each morning, I would mix some into juice and drink the foul-tasting brew — like when you make green tea and don’t mix the powder properly, but 100 times worse. Sometimes I puked it back up.
But once it kicked in, it was, like, night-and-day difference.
After about a week, I got up, and I could walk without my cane. I didn’t feel like a zombie anymore. I had some energy, more than I had in several years. I could move. I didn’t feel socially anxious. I could go out and see people.
Most importantly, I didn’t feel broken. It doesn’t mean that I wasn’t, but I had this sense of well-being I thought I’d lost. I really thought that was just how it was going to be forever.
I think my breakthrough was blending the red and green varieties, and these days, that’s what I stick to. I tried a white one once, and that was way too stimulating. I felt sick, got really fidgety, and it messed with my stomach.
I stopped taking it for six days when the ban was poised to happen. I filmed a group of YouTube videos for people to see how it impacted me. By day five, the dystonia [jaw jutting] had fully taken over. I could barely speak — the pain was really severe. I wasn’t walking very well. I wanted people see what would happen to me if it were banned.
And you were able to stop without any withdrawal symptoms? I ask because I know a lot of people worry about “kratom addiction.”
The idea that people can’t stop is false. But nobody should have to. When you’re dealing with severe pain and trauma, and you’re put into a position where you find something that works and it gets taken away from you, it hurts deep in your soul.
I think when it comes to substances, if you hide what you’re doing, chances are you’re going to become an addict, because you’re ashamed. I couldn’t have that in my life. If my doctors came to me tomorrow and said, “We think this is a bad thing for you to use,” I would probably stop. I would do it under protest, but I trust my doctors. A lot of people can’t trust their doctors, though. I want to stress that.
I think there are doctors out there who are very confused about kratom. It’s sometimes framed as just another horrible opiate — that it may as well be heroin. But it’s not. I think doctors get stuck in a system of belief that they can’t escape.
How much are you currently taking?
Unless I am in severe pain, I use the blends that I have made myself, because they hit on my on my issues — except if I am in extreme pain. Then I stick to the strongest red.
I take it 26 days out of the month, and then I have a four-day break to cleanse, because one of the things I learned is that the opioid receptors in your body are not just in your brain — they’re also in your digestive tract. So to get them to bind properly, you need to have a very healthy, clean digestive tract. I changed my diet a lot. The kratom is a tool in my toolbox. I get therapy, I go to PTSD groups, I do a lot of things to work on my well-being. And there are days where I wake up and I am not having any type of pain at all, so I may skip it.
Do you feel like it makes you high at all?
No. Obviously, everyone’s chemistry is a little different, and there are different types. Also, if there are guidelines, then people will know how to use it responsibly. I do regular blood tests to check my liver enzymes. All these things that there’s been concerns over, we’re monitoring. I’m getting all the benefits with very little issues. I’ve had a little dehydration and constipation but fixed that by taking magnesium. I’ve occasionally taken a bit too much and got nausea but nothing that a ginger chew won’t fix. Given the awful impact of all the other drugs I was on, it’s nothing.
I know people who really pound the white stuff down, as if it were cocaine. And if you’re an unhappy person, I can see why you’d want to keep coming back. A lot of the people pushing this ban have never consumed it — they don’t really know anybody who’s consumed it, but they want to tell you all these kratom horror stories. I’ve grown very tired of the stupid stories. There are many kratom users who are scared of the words addiction and withdrawal and drug. But there’s nothing to be afraid of — as long as we present the facts and are honest and responsible about using it.
Kelli, 37, Florida
Tell me about yourself.
I didn’t have a bad upbringing. I come from a single-family home. My parents held the same jobs their whole lives. I played softball. I was in dance. I was shy, but I was social. When I was little, I was fearless. I’d run around, break an arm, fall off horses. But I suffered with depression and anxiety from an early age.
What sort of anxiety?
Well, they said that I had generalized social anxiety. I think it kicked in after my grandmother died. We were very close — it was like my best friend disappeared one day, and I was too young to understand what that meant. The night she died, I didn’t tell her I loved her like I usually did when I said good night. I blamed myself.
But my doctors were just writing prescriptions haphazardly. I was was first put on an antidepressant at 13. Then he experimented with Zoloft, Paxil, and Deseryl …
When I look back, it seems obvious that I was way too young to be put on antidepressants. I was going through adolescence! My body doing all kinds of stuff — my brain, my hormones. They were pumping so many chemicals into my system, and everything went out of whack. I remember the doctor’s words very clearly: Sometimes you just need a little bit of help. And this will help. It didn’t help at all.
This was the “pill-popping, let’s buy happiness” moment in the ’90s, I assume …?
Early ’90s. And that’s where my downward spiral began. I spent my teenage years floating through life like a butterfly. Once I got to high school, I discovered marijuana, and I smoked it like it was going out of business. Oh girl, I took to marijuana big time.
What about other drugs?
I was always searching for an altered state of mind. My mother got breast cancer, and I went with her to her radiation appointments every Thursday. That was the same year I took my first opiate. I was 15.
During my last year of high school, cocaine got involved. And then my mom was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. Doctors were throwing ’scripts at her. Back then, people weren’t hiding their pills. We didn’t even have a medicine cabinet. They were in the pantry, in the bathroom, in the living room. Doctors gave 120 pills at a time. If I took five, nobody would notice. If we had a headache we would take a Darvocet — it wasn’t taboo. I remember those fuschia discs — if I took too many I’d puke pink. So I took her Darvocet and Xanax.
Then, when I was about 23, I had to have my gallbladder removed. So I was prescribed Lortab. And it was at that moment that my love for opioids began. It was like, Oh, hello, you. I have found love.
Was that sort of the “moment” you became dependent on opioids? How many were you taking per day?
When I finished high school I studied cosmetology. But I found myself asking: Do I want to do hair for the rest of my life? I got a job as a medical assistant. I was the one responsible for calling in prescriptions for patients. Ding ding ding! I began calling in my own. I did that for about a year before I got arrested after causing a drugged-out scene at a pharmacy. I was facing 12 months for prescription fraud. I lost my job, of course. My parents got me a lawyer, and in an attempt to save her spiraling daughter, my mom took me to their vacation home in North Carolina — the lawyer recommended that. During the drive, she thought I was going to die, because I had taken so many pills. She pulled over at an emergency room. When I came to I saw all these wires connected to me and I ripped them all out. Blood was spraying all over the room, and I tried to walk down the hall in my ass-open gown. They told my mom, “She’s not going to die, she’s just highly medicated.” Mom was as devastated and as broken as I was, but she had hope. Over the course of a month, she nursed me back.
I had the worst withdrawals you could ever imagine. My legs were kicking uncontrollably — I was just in so much pain. It was like my bones were being squeezed on the inside. Every cell in your body is screaming out at you. Your insides are in a vice, you are sick to your stomach, your legs are kicking uncontrollably. I was asking to die.
And I remember my sweet little mom massaging my feet, being gentle and loving. Finally, after about a month, I was free from everything — well, I was free from myself. I was the one who was taking all the drugs.
What happened when you got back to everyday life? I assume that was hard, given you didn’t go through formal rehab.
It really did feel, for a little while, like, I can do this! Unfortunately, after about six months, I went back to alcohol. And that, it turns out, was my second love. Now the marriage of opioids and booze were heaven on earth: Take both of them, you’re good. A bottle of wine a night was normal for me. Fast-forward to my first DUI arrest in 2009, and then we go to the second DUI arrest three years later, which is when the rug was ripped out. My license was suspended for five years. My freedom was taken away. I had nothing to do but concentrate on the devastation I’d caused.
Did you have to do time?
I was sentenced to in-patient rehab. I saw lots of therapists — there were weekly meetings and more therapy and more meetings, just a huge cycle. I think I’ve seen more therapists than any young adult should. The therapist prescribed me Topamax for alcohol dependency, which is supposed to squash the urge to drink. I was also prescribed Suboxone. There were two years of relapse.
I had the best intentions, but I still wanted to get fucked-up. I stopped taking the Topamax because I couldn’t recall things that I knew I knew. The doctor said that they often call it Dope-amax because of that. The Suboxone made me stutter — I would be cutting hair and stuttering thinking, I want to get fucked-up again. Within weeks, I was in the throes of addiction. Then back to Suboxone and back to stammering. I was scared shitless of withdrawals.
And again I look back and I can see how I thought doctors were these superhuman creatures. That’s what you are taught. But I think the medical community ultimately aided my demise.
When did you discover kratom?
I’d gone back to working in a hair salon. I had a cyst form in my wrist and I had to have that removed. I had an immense tolerance — the Lortab and the Percocet they’d prescribed were going to run out before my refill was due. I was worried about what to do, scared of withdrawal. I did a Google search for “natural pain reliever.” Kratom came up. I was filled with hope, so I began to research. I’m telling you, countless hours. I read every article possible. And then with access to social media, I typed it in there and, lo and behold, there are Facebook groups. That was when the American Kratom Association had just formed. There was only about a hundred members or something, so I joined every kratom group possible. I found everyone was in a similar position as I was, and I could relate to these people. It was like a new support network. And as I was researching on my laptop in bed I’m like, pain relief, depression, anxiety, addiction, holy crap — this is me, through and through.
There’s a real comfort in knowing that you aren’t alone.
It makes you feel like you aren’t a unique failure. Addiction isn’t something that people talk about at the office — Hey, I am really taking too much Percocet this month! Anyone got any tips for how to cope?
Tell me about the first time you took it.
I hit up a friend for pills and they said, “No, but have you ever heard of this stuff kratom?” This was just after I’d been reading all about it. Weird, right? The timing was impeccable. So they told me of this little smoke shop in town where the guy sold me capsules for $1 each. I took it and went to work. I was doing a customer’s hair and all of a sudden I felt … normal.
I hadn’t taken any pain meds, but I didn’t feel like I need to go home or throw up. I didn’t feel sick — I actually felt good. So I asked around online about reliable vendors and I ordered a bunch. I’ve been clean for two and a half years.
And you were addicted to opioids for how long?
A good 15 years.
How much do you need to take each day?
I started taking two teaspoons every four hours in the very beginning, because I was coming off stuff. At that point I’d become friends with someone else in the group, and we exchanged numbers, and I actually talked to her on the phone. I wanted her advice, because she’d used it to come off heroin. I was like, If she quit heroin, I can come off this easy. She told me to take two teaspoons every four hours and I’d be good. And I can say that I did not experience any withdrawals, I didn’t feel like crap for a couple days. The day I took it, it worked. And the day after, it worked. And it continues to work. My tolerance has built slightly — now I take an extra half a teaspoon per dose.
Kratom restores my “normal” without any negative effects.
No negative effects at all?
That the green and white strains tend to curb my appetite. Another thing would be what we kratom consumers call the “wobbles,” but only twice, and it was when I took too much on an empty stomach. It’s similar to how you feel if your equilibrium is a little off. I overcame it by eating a few bites of food.
A couple of months after I started taking it, I remember I took stock. I was clear in my head. I actually had money in the bank. I could do things for myself because I wasn’t pouring every dollar I make into feeding this monster.
But that’s still rather low compared to the pills you were taking, right?
Yes! When I was taking pills, I’d eat five pills — just head back and down ’em. Like Tic Tacs. Girl, it’s comical. I used to be ashamed, and I used to be embarrassed, and I used to not talk about it, but I am so stinking proud of myself, because I’m on the other side — I’ve made it. I will scream it from mountaintops. I hate to toot my own horn, but toot toot! I’m a sought-after hairdresser, I am booked weeks in advance for appointments. And I wasn’t doing that before — I wasn’t dependable, I wasn’t responsible. I was going through the motions. Now I’m an independent contractor in a studio salon with my best friend. I’m self-sufficient — I’d put it that way.
I take red and green Maeng Da. The red is good for pain, and the green is good for anxiety and depression. I converted my pantry to make a special holistic healing kratom cabinet where I keep all the different strains alongside my herbal teas and supplements. I have 12 jars, and scales that measure down to a tenth of a gram.
So what do you say to people who want it banned?
If you had told me about kratom two and a half years ago, I would have said bullshit. I’ve introduced kratom to scores of people. They’ll text me three days later saying, I can’t believe this. Kratom, without a doubt, is this country’s answer to the opioid epidemic.