Kratom abuse popping up more often at addiction treatment centers, expert says Dr. Marvin Seppala, chief medical officer at Hazelden Betty Ford, said like marijuana, alcohol and cigarettes, kratom is …
The CDC says kratom, an herbal supplement, was a cause of deaths in 91 fatal overdoses in the United States from July 2016 to December 2017. USA TODAY
There’s not much solid data about how widespread the use of a psychoactive plant called kratom is in the U.S.
But if what Dr. Marvin Seppala is seeing in addiction treatment centers all over the country is any indication, use of kratom isn’t just on the rise, it’s becoming normalized.
“What we’re seeing is regular use of it, especially in adolescents and young adults,” said Seppala, chief medical officer at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and a 2018 CivicCon speaker. “It really fits in with alcohol, marijuana and tobacco. It’s legal, so it’s really easy for kids to get a hold of, and they’ll try it to see what it does to them.”
Kratom is a plant that grows naturally in southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. A relative of the coffee plant, kratom affects the same brain receptors as opiates. It is typically taken in a powder, pill or liquid form.
In low doses, kratom users report feeling increased energy, sociability and alertness, and in higher doses, they claim it acts as a sedative and pain reliever.
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However, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that the substance can cause addiction, withdrawal symptoms and unpleasant side effects like loss of appetite, seizures and hallucinations. There are no U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved uses for kratom, and the agency warns consumers not to use kratom because it “appears to have properties that expose users to the risks of addiction, abuse, and dependence.”
Nonetheless, kratom is legal in most states and widely available in gas stations, convenience stores and head shops.
The internet is flush with websites of kratom supporters who post literature and videos purporting to debunk so-called “myths” about kratoms being dangerous. Most advocates say kratom is an all-natural pain reliever akin to opioids, but without the risk of overdose and addiction. Many people also claim to have used kratom as a substitute for illegal narcotics while they weaned themselves off drugs.
Still, “you tend to get a lot of that second-hand, anecdotal evidence of everything,” said Dustin Perry, director of medication assisted treatment specialty services at Baptist’s Lakeview Center.
“A lot of people are using it to come off opiates, or they’re using it to kind of substitute when they can’t find heroin or other kinds of drugs,” Perry said. “I can’t say that nobody’s had success with it, but most people will use it briefly, then come back to using opiates because it doesn’t quite satisfy that itch. And there’s no treatment involved with it either.”
Perry said that perhaps a bigger problem is that because kratom is legal and widely available, it gives the product an unwarranted air of safety and legitimacy.
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“Because you can buy it at a gas station and it’s not regulated, a lot of people don’t really see the problem with it, so they’ll continue to use and use, and not make any lifestyle changes,” Perry said.
A 2019 paper analyzing data from the National Poison Data System found that between 2011 and 2017, there were 11 deaths associated with kratom exposure — nine involving kratom plus other drugs and medicines, and two involving just kratom, according to the National Institute for Drug Abuse.
In 2017, the FDA identified at least 44 deaths related to kratom, with at least one case investigated as possible use of pure kratom. The FDA report noted that many of the kratom-associated deaths appeared to have resulted from adulterated products or taking kratom with other potent substances.
Locally, the Psychedelic Shack at 6215 N. Ninth Ave., is one of many businesses that sell kratom. Crystal Henry, owner of the business, said the kratom they sell is “basically a ground-up plant,” that people in Asia have been using for hundreds of years, and that it doesn’t cause any issues when used as directed.
“We wouldn’t sell anything that we felt was dangerous,” Henry said, adding that when people reported addiction and overdoses related to kratom, they often didn’t report if it was used responsibly or not.
“You never hear how much they used, or what other substances they were using or what brand they were using,” Henry said.
She noted that any kratom her store sold came from a handful of trusted distributors, and that the products were ensured they were 100% organic. Store staff receive training on kratom and various plants’ different properties — pain relief, anxiety relief and the like — but they always take care to reinforce to customers they are not a substitute for medical advice from a doctor.
Gabriel Thompson, a senior store associate, said he began researching kratom about a decade ago in search of an alternative to opioids to help him with pain from nerve damage in his back. He said he’s been using it for about eight years now with no ill effects.
“It’s helped me a lot. It’s an integral part of my life quality of life,” Thompson said. “It just helps make my life better.”
Seppala, the addiction doctor, still issued a word of caution to people thinking of turning to kratom.
“I’d tell them this is not well-studied, it does cause intoxication, and that if they have addiction that runs in the family, it could trigger something like that in them,” he said. “I’d tell them, it’s just as dangerous as the illegal substances. People think it seems safe and must be safe because it’s legal, and that’s not necessarily true.”
Kevin Robinson can be reached at email@example.com or 850-435-8527.
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