BRYAN, Texas -- In 2016, the Drug Enforcement Administration attempted to classify Kratom, a drug which up until then had seldom been in the headlines, as a Schedule 1 narcotic. In doing so, the DEA would place Kratom in the same category as drugs like heroin, LSD, and cocaine, making possession, sale, or use of the drug illegal.
Then something unexpected happened. Kratom users became vocal, protesting the decision online and outside of DEA offices. The drug’s defenders explained Kratom helped them cope with chronic pain, and lessened their dependency on dangerous medication, like Opioids.
The DEA ban failed.
Since then, something of a cold war exists between Kratom users and the US Government; the government makes their opposition to the substance clear, while Kratom users seem to rave about it’s “life-changing” properties.
That debate has made it’s way to the Brazos Valley.
What is it?
Smokin’ Joes is a popular head shop on Texas Avenue in Bryan. Its customer base is more diverse than the name may suggest. But, it’s the kind of place you can buy Kratom.
Owner Joe Huckstep explains most people who buy Kratom from his shop are looking for pain relief. Frequently, they’ve used prescribed opiates and become dependent on the drugs’ pain-numbing abilities to make it through the day.
“I’ve got guys who were taking 24 hydrocodone a day that take none now,” said Huckstep. He adds that he only started selling Kratom 3 or 4 years ago because of popular demand. Customers in pain kept asking for it.
Christianne Long understands why. A decades-old car accident has kept her in near constant pain. For years, she used Percocet. Now, she only takes Kratom after Joe recommended it.
“Essentially, he saved my life,” Long exclaimed. “Had I not come in here that day, I’d still be where I was.”
In low doses, Kratom provides relief from pain and can give users an energy boost. It’s most commonly in pill form. Inside the capsules are crushed up parts of a plant, mitragyna speciose, which is in the coffee family.
But, in higher doses, doctors say Kratom can mimic the effects of an opiate, giving the user a prolonged sedative effect. And, experts say, that can be dangerous.
“From 5 milligrams to about 15 milligrams, it becomes like an opioid,” said Carl Olivarez, a drug counselor with the Brazos Valley Council on Alcohol and Substance Abuse. “They’ve defined it as having ‘opioid-like properties.’”
Kratom users say that’s its defining quality, allowing users to cope with pain like an opiate would, without the harmful side effects of manufactured and extremely addictive opiates like OxyContin or Percocet.
“Guys that were taking 24 hydrocodone a day, I don’t see how this is going to hurt them anymore than that was doing,” said Joe.
“People [say], similar to marijuana, ‘Oh whats wrong with it? It’s an herb. It’s safe. But it’s not,” countered Carl.
Is it safe? Is it addictive?
The US government and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cite 44 total deaths, related to Kratom use. 43 of those deaths are from people using Kratom in addition to other substances. Only one death, according to the FDA, is from direct Kratom use.
Nonetheless, the FDA actively speaks out against the substance. They’ve issued press releases calling the drug unregulated and unsafe. Also, at the FDA’s direction, US Marshals often confiscate Kratom shipments coming into the US without even opening the cargo.
Also, 7 US States and a handful of cities have banned Kratom. Pro-Kratom lobbying groups, like The American Kratom Association, keep a running list.
Carl Olivarez believes one of Kratom’s most dangerous elements is that, while it may not seem addictive, it is.
“[During] misuse or abuse of it, you have the similar symptoms of opioid abuse,” Carl said.
Kratom users, like Christianne Long, disagree. Christianne said her doctor is comfortable with her Kratom use and she doesn’t feel the usual symptoms, like withdrawal, that would signify the drug is addictive.
“I went from taking a Percocet…to taking the Kratom. No withdrawals, no side effects, no nothing,” she said.
Carl said he’d advise patients against using it. In his opinion, the drug is too untested and unregulated. Additionally, due to a lack of FDA regulation, Kratom copycats and “watered down” mixtures often appear online. There was even Salmonella found in shipments of Kratom in multiple states.
Joe argues that shouldn’t discourage people looking for pain relief from buying Kratom. Instead, prospective Kratom users should buy it from local stores and ask clarifying questions from those selling it.
And, to those skeptical of Kratom, Joe offers transparency.
“Do your research. Talk to some people,” he said. “Come work with me for a day and hear the testimony some people are giving. How life changing it is.”