Susan Ash is a happy woman today.
That’s because federal authorities are having second thoughts about their proposal to ban a painkilling drug.
Ash has relied on a substance from the tropical kratom plant since 2010 to deal with the pain, fatigue, and addiction to opioid medications related to late stage Lyme disease.
In fact, she considers kratom to be an herbal supplement, not a drug or a medication.
“I am completely and totally relieved,” Ash, the founder of the American Kratom Association, told Healthline. “I feel like a 1,000-pound gorilla has been lifted off me.”
Her joy comes from an announcement that officials at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) have withdrawn a notice they published on Aug. 31 stating they wanted to temporarily place the kratom into their restrictive Schedule 1 category.
DEA officials have now posted a notice today saying they will accept public comments until Dec. 1 on the status of the substance.
At that point, the agency could decide to leave kratom unregulated, or it could place the drug in a more restrictive category under the Controlled Substances Act.
The DEA reversal stunned some people in the field.
John Hudak, who studies drug policy at the Brookings Institute, told The Washington Post the move was “shocking” because the DEA “is not one to second-guess itself.”
The new posting comes after the DEA received numerous complaints from people like Ash after its initial posting.
Criticism also came from scientists who said the ban would cripple crucial research into using kratom as a safer painkilling alternative during the current opioid epidemic.
“Since publishing that notice, DEA has received numerous comments from members of the public challenging the scheduling action and requesting that the agency consider those comments and accompanying information before taking further action,” wrote Chuck Rosenberg, acting administrator at the DEA.
DEA officials also noted in their posting that they will be receiving scientific and medication evaluations on kratom from scientists at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
What is kratom?
Kratom is a tropical tree native to Southeast Asia, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Its bitter leaves contain psychoactive opioid compounds.
The leaves are consumed to relieve pain and improve mood, according to the institute.
The substance is not illegal at the moment and can be obtained easily on the internet. It is sometimes sold as a green powder or as an extract or gum.
The institute reports that in recent years kratom has been used by people to help control withdrawal symptoms to opioids and other addictive substances. It notes there is no scientific evidence that kratom is effective in this capacity.
Researchers told the Scientific American journal in September that they believe kratom can effectively reduce pain without producing addictive side effects.
They also think a person’s body would not adjust to kratom’s chemicals, eliminating the need to take higher doses of the painkiller after a person has used it for a while.
Andrew Kruegel, an associate research scientist at Columbia University, has been studying potential therapies for central nervous system disorders.
One of the substances he has investigated is kratom.
He told Healthline his molecular-level research has shown that kratom has the potential to be effective as a painkiller as well as a treatment to help wean people off of opioid medications.
He added kratom also doesn't appear to suppress breathing, like many opioids do, making it a less dangerous alternative in terms of overdose.
There haven’t been any clinical human trials on kratom, but Kruegel hopes there will be soon.
Kruegel hopes to eventually develop a safer, more effective medication for people who suffer from chronic pain as well as people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and mood disorders.
A DEA ban on kratom would hamper research efforts because scientists would have less access to the plant. They would also need to deal with extra paperwork and security due to the Schedule 1 classification.
“The ban would delay research significantly and complicate it significantly,” Kruegel said.
One woman’s journey
There doesn’t need to be any additional research to convince Ash that kratom is effective.
Ash said she was ill for eight years with a crippling, painful condition.
At first, she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. In 2010, she was finally diagnosed with late stage Lyme disease.
Ash said she had become addicted to the painkillers she took for her illness.
Late in 2010, she discovered kratom during a chat in an online forum.
She called one of the online participants who used kratom. They discussed how to safely purchase the substance and safely take it.
Ash ordered the substance and her first shipment of kratom arrived the next day. She said she felt immediate relief after her first dose. In particular, the addictive feeling toward opioids dissipated.
She now takes kratom twice a day. Ash has also gone from taking 13 medications a day to just two.
If the DEA does eventually decide to restrict kratom, Ash isn’t sure what she will do. She will probably have to return to some of her previous pain medications.
But, for the next six weeks or more, she doesn’t have to worry about that.
“I can purchase kratom without feeling like a felon,” she said.