Kratom policy: The challenge of balancing therapeutic potential with public safety

Int J Drug Policy. 2019 Aug;70:70-77. doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2019.05.003. Epub 2019 May 16.

Abstract

Kratom (Mitragyna speciosa) is a tree-like plant indigenous to Southeast Asia. Its leaves, and the teas brewed from them have long been used by people in that region to stave off fatigue and to manage pain and opioid withdrawal. Evidence suggests kratom is being increasingly used by people in the United States and Europe for the self-management of opioid withdrawal and treatment of pain. Recent studies have confirmed that kratom and its chemical constituents have potentially useful pharmacological actions. However, there have also been increasing numbers of reports of adverse effects resulting from use of kratom products. In August 2016, the US Drug Enforcement Administration announced plans to classify kratom and its mitragynine constituents as Schedule I Controlled Substances, a move that triggered a massive response from pro-kratom advocates. The debate regarding the risks, and benefits and safety of kratom continues to intensify. Kratom proponents tout kratom as a safer and less addictive alternative to opioids for the management of pain and opioid addiction. The anti-kratom faction argues that kratom, itself, is a dangerous and addictive drug that ought to be banned. Given the widespread use of kratom and the extensive media attention it is receiving, it is important for physicians, scientists and policy makers to be knowledgeable about the subject. The purpose of this commentary is to update readers about recent developments and controversies in this rapidly evolving area. All of the authors are engaged in various aspects of kratom research and it is our intention to provide a fair and balanced overview that can form the basis for informed decisions on kratom policy. Our conclusions from these analyses are: (a) User reports and results of preclinical studies in animals strongly suggest that kratom and its main constituent alkaloid, mitragynine may have useful activity in alleviating pain and managing symptoms of opioid withdrawal, even though well-controlled clinical trials have yet to be done. (b) Even though kratom lacks many of the toxicities of classic opioids, there are legitimate concerns about the safety and lack of quality control of purported "kratom" products that are being sold in the US. (c) The issues regarding the safety and efficacy of kratom and its mitragynine constituent can only be resolved by additional research. Classification of the Mitragyna alkaloids as Schedule I controlled substances would substantially impede this important research on kratom.

Keywords: Drug policy; Ketum; Kratom; Mitragynine; Opioid use disorder (OUD); Pain management.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Drug and Narcotic Control / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Humans
  • Mitragyna / adverse effects*
  • Plant Extracts / adverse effects*
  • Plant Extracts / pharmacology
  • Plant Extracts / therapeutic use*
  • Plant Leaves / adverse effects
  • Secologanin Tryptamine Alkaloids / adverse effects*
  • Secologanin Tryptamine Alkaloids / pharmacology
  • Secologanin Tryptamine Alkaloids / therapeutic use
  • Substance Withdrawal Syndrome / drug therapy

Substances

  • Plant Extracts
  • Secologanin Tryptamine Alkaloids
  • mitragynine