Supporters of an herb sold legally in gas stations, vapor shops and tobacco stores are going up against the Drug Enforcement Agency.
The DEA said kratom, a product made out of a Southeast Asian tree leaf, should be banned and they plan to do exactly that, but several scientists, state senators, and kratom advocates are asking the agency to reconsider.
“I think more people need to know about it. It's a wonderful substitution to a lot of really bad stuff,” said Alexander Faught, co-owner of Vapor Austin.
The DEA said kratom is so dangerous that it's partially responsible for 15 deaths in the U.S. over the last two years.
“I think it can be classified as a more restricted substance, which I would be in favor of, but the research should go on,” said Dr. Leonard Weiss, psychiatrist and addiction medicine specialist.
Kratom activates some of the same receptors as opioids. The leaves are ground into a powder and can be mixed into a drink or taken in capsule form.
The American Kratom Association said about four-million people in the U.S. use it for things like pain management.
“Pain management is a huge thing with kratom. People can stop their prescription pills that make them feel groggy or affect their daily life in a negative way and there's finally a substitution for those,” Faught said.
Last month, the DEA announced their plans to reclassify kratom as a schedule I controlled substance, putting it in the same class as heroin, marijuana and ecstasy.
“As doctors, we should be very worried about it, especially the addiction field, because it has been shown to have a great deal of toxicity. There's a lot of side effects to it, it has a lot of abuse potential, so that's something we as physicians need to deal with,” said Weiss.
The reclassification of kratum was expected to happen as early as Friday, but after thousands petitioned the DEA's decision, including several U.S. lawmakers, the DEA delayed the ban, but they said it's still going to happen.
“The day that it becomes reclassified is the last day that we're going to sell it,” Faught said.
Faught said most kratom customers at his shop are using the herbal supplement in place of opiate painkillers and even addiction specialists said it should be studied to see if it helps people quit more dangerous drugs.
“That would be really great if kratom could do that, and, going by its mechanism of action, it definitely has a lot of potential to do that and it's somewhat similar to the detox drug we often use called Suboxone,” said Weiss.
Although, like the DEA, Weiss hopes kratom is outlawed before it ruins anymore lives.
“People do become addicted to kratom and you could see why that would happen, because its mechanism of action is the same as opiate painkillers,” Weiss said.
People who use kratom daily can have some withdrawal effects when they stop ingesting it. The herbal supplement is already illegal in six U.S. states and countries like Thailand and Malaysia.