By: DANIEL VELASCO
Deep in the rainforests of Southeast Asia lies an infamous plant.
With yellow flowers and evergreen leaves, kratom induces stimulant-like effects to its users, while causing opiate-like side effects to people who use it in high doses.
Kratom is primarily put into capsules and made into extracts and pills, but dried kratom leaves can be brewed into a tea. Traditionally, kratom is chewed, or in some cases eaten in food.
Its side effects are where this plant gets interesting. When kratom is ingested, the chemical compounds (Mitragynine and 7-a-hydroxymitragynine) affect the brain’s four opiate receptors. These brain receptors control an array of different behavioral aspects including pain, depression, anxiety and addiction.
The most famous side effects are pleasure, decreased pain and a sedative feeling. However, other users who take smaller doses claim that they experience stimulant- and amphetamine-like effects such as increased energy and endurance. These side effects are because of the chemical compound mitragynine and its tendency to touch other receptors within the brain responsible for these areas.
Because of kratom’s many effects on the brain, a debate has been sparked over its potential uses. While many users claim the opiate-like side effects help them overcome opiate addiction. However the brain’s reaction to the plant’s present alkaloids suggests that long term use can lead to addiction. Moreover, people trying to stop the consumption of kratom often feel the similar opiate-like withdrawal symptoms such as insomnia, muscle aches and emotional changes.
Historically, kratom has been used in different ways. In Thailand, kratom was often used to overcome morphine addiction. In Malaya, it was used to treat opium addiction. In Southeast Asia, it often was used in a tea or chewed in order to sustain production in agriculture, similar to a cup of coffee. People living in rural areas also used it to treat diarrhea, fever and wounds.
Aside from ethnobotanical use, Malaysia and Thailand offer a lot of data regarding the prevalence of kratom use. A survey conducted in 2007 showed that people aged 12-65 who used kratom within the past year used kratom significantly more than other drugs such as cannabis, making kratom the most widely used drug in Thailand.
In 2006, another study was conducted measuring the prevalence of psychoactive drugs in 1,635 motorists in Thailand. In that study, 0.9 percent tested positive for the chemical compound mitragynine, which is the alkaloid found in kratom. In 2011, kratom-related seizures reached an all-time high in Malaysia and Myanmar.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that as of 2016, more than 200,000 people have died from prescription opiate overdose since 1999. Since the ’90s pharmaceutical opioids have become the most prescribed medication, surpassing antibiotics and heart medication. As of 2015 the CDC reports that opiates have surpassed antibiotics in number of prescriptions with an average of 33 million antibiotic prescriptions and an estimated 226.8 million opiate prescriptions.
The CDC also reports that 15,500 deaths relating to overdoses from heroin with another 19,000 overdose-related deaths to synthetic opiates. Moreover, while deaths related to heroin increased by 20 percent from 2015 to 2016, deaths from synthetic opiates in Arizona increased by 63.3 percent from 2015 to 2016.
Compared to the Drug Enforcement Administration data, kratom has been linked to 15 deaths from 2014 to 2016. In 2016. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reported “in 2016, there were 769 opioid-related overdose deaths— in Arizona — a rate of 11.4 deaths per 100,000 persons, compared to the national rate of 13.3 deaths per 100,000 persons.” Given the fact there has not been much research of kratom, it’s important to be cautious about claims.
According to the FDA, there’s no evidence of the rapeutic benefit to people who are addicted to prescription opioids. In Western countries, kratom is currently controlled in several European countries.
Although kratom is largely federally uncontrolled in the United States, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana and Massachusetts consider it a controlled substance. As for the other states, many local shops and online stores have made kratom-related products easily accessible, including in Tucson.
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