Is kratom a drug, a medicinal herb, a dietary supplement, a “safe food”, a tea? These terms have a whole lot to do with social perception, a little to do with legal issues, and nothing to do with science.
Kratom is a shrub that grows natively in Southeast Asia. Botanically, kratom comes from the Rubiaceae family, the same family as coffee. Kratom’s leaves are most often consumed by eating fresh or dried leaves or brewing the leaves into a tea.
Kratom is not a substance that typically leads the people who consume it to become unproductive, unfocused, or socially dysfunctional (Singh 2015). Kratom consumed moderately seems to be no more taxing on the body than coffee. Most people can consume a fair amount of coffee with no ill effects, but for a small percentage of people, coffee and kratom have undesirable health consequences. In fact, kratom’s most active alkaloid, mitragynine, is less toxic than coffee’s main alkaloid, caffeine.
In a recent TV ad campaign, the American Kratom Association (AKA) says kratom is “not a drug” and calls it a “safe food”. There are legal reasons for this terminology, as the AKA is promoting a legal framework to protect the rights of American kratom consumers. If kratom is legally classified as a drug then it must pass through a costly, rigorous, years-long procedure through the Food and Drug Administration in order to be available on the market. This process is only available to large pharmaceutical corporations. This is why the drug Epidiolex costs $35,000 per year per patient with epilepsy, and the dietary supplement, CBD, costs one tenth that amount, even though Epidiolex and CBD are the same substance. A food coming from a plant, like coffee or tea, would not have to endure rigorous regulatory processes in order to be sold.
The FDA considers kratom to be a New Dietary Ingredient (NDI), which are dietary ingredients not marketed as such before 1994, when the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) passed. A company selling an NDI like kratom must notify the FDA and prove that kratom can be generally recognized as safe. The FDA won’t accept NDI Notifications from kratom companies because, based on flimsy evidence, FDA doesn’t think kratom is safe. Thank God we have all accepted coffee before 1994, because caffeine is far more addictive and deadly than mitragynine.
Outside of the legal world, a public consensus about “drugs” vs. “medicine” and the concept of “nonmedical” or “recreational” vs. “medicinal” was manufactured by decades of blatant and sometimes comical propaganda. The first director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger, was an outspoken racist who called jazz music “Satanic” and said, “This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and others” (Soloman 2020). Selective moralism condemning “drug abuse”, “pleasure” or “getting high” grew like a cancer alongside Prohibition and the War on Drugs. John Erlichmann, a policy advisor to President Richard Nixon, admitted the policy of the godfathers of the War on Drugs had nothing to do with public health and everything to do with circumventing the First Amendment to silence disagreeable citizens:
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did. (Baum 2016).
The common phrase “Drugs and Alcohol” illustrates the underlying hypocrisy. Despite the fact that alcohol is more damaging than many substances considered “drugs”, it’s put into another category, simply because alcohol was accepted by the controlling forces. It is generally accepted that alcohol should remain legal, since most people can enjoy a few drinks responsibly without becoming an alcoholic.. That’s also true for every other drug. The vast majority of people who try any substance, legal or illegal, organic or synthetic, accepted or demonized, do not become addicted.
“Drugs” became something brewed up in dirty huts by foreign “cartels” sold by “drug dealers” to an “addict” who buys it on “the street”. “Medicine” is manufactured in a sterile laboratory by the “pharmaceutical industry”, prescribed by “doctors” to a “patient” who picks up his prescription at a “pharmacy”.
One market for these substances is unacceptable, dirty, illegal, and morally reprehensible. The acceptable, clean, legal, and morally sound market for the same or similar substances is what historian Daniel Herzeberg describes as “white markets”. In the 2000s, a thriving white market for opioid pain killers enabled “pill mills” and doctors willing to prescribe enough legal heroin to kill every American citizen. This form of legal drug dealing has precedent in the 1950s, when “enough sedatives and stimulants were being sold to provide over fifty doses annually to every man, woman, and child in the United States” and “pharmaceutical use to have been rife with behavior that, in other circumstances, would have been called ‘drug dealing’ and ‘drug addiction’.” In this context, white, middle class people were more likely to be seen as patients, where as poor whites and people of color were rarely prescribed these pills as they were more likely to be seen as drug addicts (Herzeberg 2017). Health insurance, doctor fees and expensive FDA-approved medicines cost far more than a direct purchase of the same substance known as drtugs on the “black market”.
“Is coffee a drug?”
Lethal Dose (LD50):
Caffeine (main alkaloid in coffee) = 300 mg/kg
Mitragynine (main alkaloid in kratom) = 547.7 mg/kg
In some states today, the market for legal cannabis could be classified as one of Herzeberg’s “white markets”. Hemp (cannabis with less than 0.3% Delta-9 THC) is federally legal, so epileptics can purchase CBD instead of white market, $13,000/yr Epidiolex. In Pennsylvania a “Medical Marijuana” card costs $250 ($200 for a doctor’s prescription, and $50 to the state for an official card). The cheapest price I’ve seen for flower cannabis is $80 for a quarter ounce. Consumers can purchase cannabis in the black market for much less. The act of going legal and the cannabis itself is cost prohibitive for low-income consumers.
Some observers say that kratom is now in a legal “gray area”. Kratom is legal but so unregulated that anything can be sold as kratom.
Creating an illegal “black market” for kratom would obviously be irrational and detrimental to millions of Americans for safety, social, and legal reasons. One way to create a black market for kratom would be to make kratom illegal. Another way would be to create a “white market” for kratom by making laws so restrictive that kratom products become cost prohibitive for anybody but the wealthy.
A sane legal approach would be to make kratom available with rational restrictions to provide for the safety of consumers such as testing and labeling requirements. The FDA regulates coffee as a food, restricts the amount of caffeine allowed in certain products, and requires products containing caffeine to be labelled as such. Since caffeine is nearly twice as toxic as mitragynine, kratom’s main alkaloid, a rational approach would be to apply the same regulatory framework to kratom that’s applied to coffee.
Whether kratom is regarded as a drug, a tea, a food, or an herbal supplement shouldn’t matter to one looking at the issue with a rational perspective, considering the social history of substance prohibition, and of course, following the science.
5 thoughts on “Is Kratom a Drug?”
I have taken Kratom daily for 8 years. Every year I taper down and take a month to 2 break. I have never had any withdrawal symptoms like those mentioned in reddit forums. Tapering is the key just like prednisone or the like. There is a world of difference between addiction and physical dependence. One is a psychological and environmental issue and the other is a medical condition that can be handled correctly. Dependence is simple your body getting too used to something and it “freaks out” when denied said substance. Tapering is like a slow acclimation. It takes a bit of time but with Kratom it’s easy as can be to accomplish.
Kratom is definitely addictive. Starts out great at the beginning. Then it turns on you making you so much a shell of yourself. No motivation anymore. And I’m not taking large amounts. It sneaks up on you. And it so DIFFICULT to stop. Look at Reddit. r quitting Kratom. See what others are saying. Not to mention the heavy metals found in Kratom. Kratom has good properties. Must be regulated
If Kratom Science wants to speak to me. That’s fine. I’m not a child. I’m a successful woman. Thank you. Lori
You need to hear the truth and what I have been through. I will tell the truth.
Hi Lori. Nobody said you were a child and we’ve done several pieces on kratom addiction, tolerance, and tapering, and talked about it in a few of the interviews and podcasts. Thank you for your comments.
These are the types of comments you see posted from the anti-kratom folks that have never taken kratom and point to the random, anonymous posts of reddit as some type of gospel. I am lead to believe that if you’re saying that kratom “turns on you making you so much a shell of yourself. No motivation anymore” that you have other issues going on in your life beyond simply consuming kratom only. I consume kratom and know hundreds of consumers and this seems to be the far minority of consumers that this is the outcome and the minority that do have issues are suffering from some type of (mental) illness and/ or consuming other drugs or alcohol, not exercising, nor eating a healthy diet or living a healthy lifestyle.
If you don’t mind, and I am happy to DM too, do you mind saying what other medications are you on or recently stopped? Do you drink alcohol? Are you overweight? Suffer from depression, anxiety or any other type of (mental) illness?
Kratom isn’t for everyone, and there is a risk of dependence, which is very mild all things considered. There are millions of people that consume kratom safely and are benefitting from it. It may not be the best thing to try and conflate your personal issues to all kratom consumers, and try to restrict safe access to our beneficial plant. Also heavy metals are found in all food. If you buy from a trusted vendor it’s not an issue.