Background: Ketum (krathom) has been mentioned in the literature as a traditional alternative to manage drug withdrawal symptoms though there are no studies indicating its widespread use for this purpose. This study examines the reasons for ketum consumption in the northern areas of peninsular Malaysia where it is widely used.
Methods: A cross-sectional survey of 136 active users was conducted in the northern states of Kedah and Penang in Malaysia. On-site urine screening was done for other substance use.
Findings: Ketum users were relatively older (mean 38.7 years) than the larger substance using group. Nearly 77% (104 subjects) had previous drug use history, whilst urine screening confirmed 62 subjects were also using other substances. Longer-term users (use >2 years) had higher odds of being married, of consuming more than the average three glasses of ketum a day and reporting better appetite. Short-term users had higher odds of having ever used heroin, testing positive for heroin and of using ketum to reduce addiction to other drugs. Both groups used ketum to reduce their intake of more expensive opiates, to manage withdrawal symptoms and because it was cheaper than heroin. These findings differ from those in neighbouring Thailand where ketum was used primarily to increase physical endurance.
Conclusions: No previous study has shown the use of ketum to manage opioid withdrawal symptoms except for a single case reported in the US. Ketum was described as affordable, easily available and having no serious side effects despite prolonged use. It also permitted self-treatment that avoids stigmatisation as a drug dependent. The claims of so many subjects on the benefits of ketum merits serious scientific investigation. If prolonged use is safe, the potential for widening the scope and reach of substitution therapy and lowering its cost are tremendous, particularly in developing countries.
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