The Dangers of Illegal Kratom

Drug Prohibition is the refusal by a government to reasonably regulate psychoactive substance markets, facilitate open research of psychoactive substances, and provide effective healthcare to people who use drugs.

One purpose of drug prohibition is to expand the powers of law enforcement to legally oppress certain communities. John Ehrlichmann, a policy advisor to President Richard Nixon, is often quoted for admitting, “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” (Baum 2016).

Another purpose of drug prohibition is to stifle competition for legal drugs. In 1943, Thailand had been collecting taxes from the opium market, which increased the price of opium. To save money, many opium consumers switched to kratom or used kratom to wean off of opium. As a response, the Thai government outlawed kratom in the country with the strongest cultural history of safe, traditional kratom use (Tanguay, 2011). This prohibition was not repealed until 2021.

Drug prohibition also affords obvious advantages for the prison industry. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. The inmate population has skyrocketed since the start of Nixon’s War on Drugs in the early 1970s. The prison-industrial complex exploits inmates for cheap labor for various industries (cummings, 2018).

Propaganda justifying drug prohibition is irrational given the abundance of historical evidence that these measures do the opposite of stopping or curbing drug misuse and negative outcomes associated with drugs. However, the abundance of anti-drug propaganda in popular culture has a simple, constant message: drugs are dangerous and deadly, and we have to get rid of them.

Prohibition does not get rid of drugs, it only makes them more dangerous and sometimes deadly. The kratom plant, with centuries of safe traditional use, now available mostly as ground leaf powder in the United States in a legal grey market, will quickly evolve into a street drug with all the associated dangers if government refuses to regulate, and instead creates a kratom black market.

Here are four reasons why outlawing kratom will make it more dangerous:

The kratom itself will likely become dangerous.

Kratom is a tea with a centuries old history of safe use. As with most psychoactive substances, though a minority of consumers develop dependency and addiction to kratom (see r/quittingkratom), most consumers report a positive outcome and view side effects as relatively mild (Swogger and Walsh, 2018). It seems that with consumption practices mirroring the traditional use of small doses of kratom leaf brewed into a tea, the lower the prevelance of misuse, dependency issues, and negative experiences.

Keeping kratom legal would ensure the wider availability of fresh, crushed, or ground leaf kratom. When substances become illegal, they become stronger. Because the products of illicit markets have to be concealed, it’s more advantageous to extract the psychoactive compounds from the source material. Extra water and plant material is left behind, and the extracted powder, resin, or liquid takes up far less room for transport. A bottle of whiskey is easier to conceal than a case of beer. A bushel of coca leaf is much harder to smuggle across the border than a kilo of cocaine. Opium poppy becomes morphine, then diamorphine (heroin), and now synthetic fentanyl and carfentanil. Synthetic compounds add another advantage as they only require a lab to manufacture and not a field. Drug policy scholars call this the “iron law of prohibition“. As law enforcement grows stronger, so do drugs.

There’s every indication kratom, if made illegal, will eventually go the way of coca and poppy. “Natural” isn’t synonymous with “safe”, but for many psychoactive substances, toxic events are more frequent the more the substance is processed post-harvest. Forget the myriad of alkaloids that work together to make kratom tea, like coffee, a pleasurable and relatively safe experience, complex in its effects. High mitragynine extracts with the opioid-only effects are likely to be the most prevalent form of “street kratom” sold on a black market.

Manufacturing standards, currently not widespread enough in kratom’s grey market, go out the window completely in the unregulated illicit market. During alcohol prohibition in the 1920s, bootleggers attempted to distill industrial methanol into drinkable alcohol, which resulted in death, blindness, and other disabilities. Today, those who buy illicit opioids have no idea of the strength and purity of the ingredients in the bag.

Zachary Siegal recently reported in New Republic: “In early November, a bag of tan powder sold as heroin on the street in Chicago contained fentanyl, heroin, cocaine, and Xylazine (a drug used as a sedative by veterinarians), as well as Metonitazene, a synthetic opioid 100 times stronger than morphine.”

Once opioid-effect-heavy kratom extract gets a foothold in an illicit marketplace, there’s no reason to believe products sold as “kratom” will contain only compounds derived from the kratom plant. It’s very likely all illegal products sold as kratom on the street in major American cities will contain fentanyl or other very strong sythetic opioids.

Opioid overdose deaths have increased as probationary measures have been carried out with the opioid prescription crackdown of doctors. Pain patients and other people who use opioids are turning to the street and buying, overdosing, and dying on unregulated illicit opioids and drug combinations listed above.

Suicides may increase from ever decreasing options for chronic pain patients.

Growing numbers of people who live with intractable chronic pain are committing suicide after being abruptly forced off pain medication by their doctors (Kline and Lamb, 2018). Some of these patients have turned to kratom as a last resort. Dijon Evans of Sacramento, California told Kratom Science that she had planned to kill herself on the day her first package of kratom arrived, and she credits this with saving her life.

Violence will likely increase around illicit kratom trafficking.

Violence increases with more prohibition. As Dr. Fabian Steinmetz told Kratom Science in comments regarding illicit cannabis manufacturers, “People get into arguments all the time. Usually people clarify this in court if they find no other solution. But if you can’t go to court because it’s illegal, then you have to use Kalashnikovs.”

Not to mention the violence carried out by law enforcement, who will have yet another reason to break into citizens’ homes, forcibly remove, and imprison them for engaging in commerce or possession of kratom leaves.

Both homicides and suicides markedly increased during the 1920s era of alcohol prohibition in the US (O’Neill, 2020).

Kratom research will be stifled.

It will become much more difficult to find out who can and cannot safely use kratom, the difference between safe use and misuse, the patterns of dependence and addiction, the pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics of the myriad of kratom alkaloids, drug interactions involving kratom and its alkaloids, and an infinite amount of other information about kratom, should research be shut down by prohibition.

Dr. Lance McMahon, Chair of the Department of Pharmacodynamics at University of Florida who has done extensive cannabis research explained this issue to Kratom Science,

“Our government has not been following the science for decades when it comes to cannabis, and that’s unfortunate because I think there’s a lot we could have learned during that time. Because it was Schedule I, it was very difficult to study. You have to have a specialized kind of license in order to do that, and a lot of scientists are unwilling to take that chance because you’re taking on risk when you get those licenses… If we get to the point where we’re outlawing, if you allow me to use that term drugs, that up until now have been widely accessible anywhere, you’re going to really put a major obstacle in the way of progress in research.”

Advocates for prohibition can no longer hide behind a facade of good intentions. In history, prohibitionists have been, at best, misguided, and at worst, intentionally violent.

Kratom is not going away. Kratom prohibition will not reduce harm or solve problems. It will only increase harm and invent new problems.

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