OKLAHOMA CITY — Federal health officials say kratom is a dangerous substance that has been linked to overdose deaths, but advocates say it’s an herbal supplement to wean themselves off of harmful opioids.
Kratom comes from a plant native to southeast Asia. In low doses, it acts as a stimulant similar to caffeine. In higher doses, it produces opioid-like effects.
It isn’t FDA-approved for any kind of medical use, but that’s not stopping millions of Americans from trying it. Research shows about 5 million people across the U.S. are using Kratom in one form or another.
In a recent interview on KTUL News in Oklahoma City, a local resident named Adam Hull shared his story with Kratom. He said he started using kratom after a car accident at the age of 16.
“That’s the big event that set everything in motion to where we are today, really,” Hull said.
He walked away from the wreck without a scratch but started having migraines and neck pain a few weeks later. Doctors couldn’t figure out the cause.
“Right away they gave me pain pills,” said Adam. “My tolerance would build up so fast to it. My body would just burn through it. So I’d need more and more and more and more – and that’s just how it escalates.”
Adam hid his addiction from his wife Jamie until it all came crashing down.
“All of a sudden, I wake up the next day in the ICU with a catheter,” he said. “Having no idea what happened.”
The accidental overdose was a wake-up call. Adam went through a detox facility to get off opioids for good. But withdrawal was agonizing, and his pain returned. Adam says he was hurting so bad, he couldn’t even work. That’s when he saw an article about kratom and decided to give it a try.
“ And instantly, it was like wow,” said Adam. “I felt fine, like I was completely coherent, completely normal. I wasn’t impaired at all, but I just felt good. Kratom saved my marriage. It probably saved my life. I don’t know what I’d do without it, you know.”
But not everyone is convinced kratom is a cure-all. The FDA says there is no evidence it’s safe or effective for any medical use.
“I think there’s liable to be problems with taking it that aren’t yet identified, so people are going to have to be very careful,” said Dr. Hal Scofield with the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation.
A recent report from the CDC found that kratom was the cause of death in at least 91 fatal overdoses in the U.S. from July 2016 to Dec. 2017. In almost all of those cases, other drugs – like fentanyl and heroin – were also listed as contributing to the overdoses.
According to some research, calls about kratom to poison control centers nationwide have soared more than 50-fold. There were just 13 reported kratom exposures in 2011 and 682 in 2017. However, 84% of all calls to poison control centers are categorized as non-toxic or minimally toxic experiences.
Adam says businesses that don’t test their kratom or mix it with other substances are the ones causing issues across the country. He thinks lawmakers should regulate the packaging and testing of kratom products, and not ban the drug itself.
The Hulls hope that Oklahoma lawmakers work on a kratom bill to keep it legal in the city but set regulations for handling and processing the supplement.
The DEA considered making kratom illegal in 2016 but withdrew its plans after facing significant backlash by over 23,000 kratom advocates. The federal agency says more research is needed on the drug.
The National Institute of Drug Abuse is currently funding two studies, totaling nearly $7.9 million, to better understand how kratom works. One goal of the research is to compare how it’s been used for hundreds of years in southeast Asia versus the way westerners consume it.