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Why Is This Drug Legal in America When Cannabis Isn't?

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Ever heard of kratom? The story of this drug says a lot about America's political relationship with drugs. Long story short: how we treat drugs on a federal level is entirely political. It's motivated by money interests that are not in the interest of the American people. The word "health" hardly applies.

When it comes to kratom, the government is quick to disparage the plant. According to the NIDA's "drug facts" page on kratom (which, by the way, includes far more conjecture than facts), "Reported health effects of kratom use include nausea, sweating, seizures, and psychotic symptoms." I've talked to kratom users who have never experienced such effects. From what I can tell, you have to use a TON of kratom to get anywhere close to these purported health effects. When some people say one thing and others say the opposite, to report on nothing but the negative is an extreme form of conjecture coming from a government website we are supposed to trust.

The fact is kratom is related to coffee and it gets you high. The effect can be similar to opium because when cured, crushed, and ingested, alkaloids in kratom bind to opiate receptors in the brain. Take kratom and you'll experience euphoria, sedation and pain relief. Yet kratom is interesting because small doses of the stuff act as a stimulant. Whatever the case, like marijuana, kratom is psychoactive. Use it excessively, and you may hallucinate.

To make kratom, manufacturers cure and grind up the leaves of the mitragyna speciosa plant, which is a tree native to southeast Asia. It grows readily in Thailand, where the Thai government banned kratom in 1943, not because of its health effects, but because kratom was competing with opium. The Thai government was making money through taxes on opium. People turned to kratom to help them with withdrawal symptoms because they couldn't afford opium anymore. The Thai government needed that opium tax revenue, so they banned kratom.

In the US, an interesting development kept kratom from getting junked by the DEA. At first, the DEA sought to put kratom on the Schedule 1 list right next to marijuana, but then the agency changed its mind.

Why? Could it be because opioid overdose is the number one cause of death for Americans under 50, and kratom is a safe substitute for opium? To put this in perspective, opioids are among the most commonly abused drugs for teens, college kids, and adults. Over 120 people die of an opioid overdose every day. If there's anything close to a safe substitute for opioids -- and that would be kratom -- it's extremely important to make it readily available. That is, until we address the underlying cause of our copious opioid abuse and put it to an end, if that's possible in this nation.

Thankfully, kratom remains legal, but let's just say the US Pharmacist website seems a little miffed at the situation. Could the undertone of incredulity in the US Pharmacist's article about the DEA's indecision stem from the fact that pharmacies and pharma companies can't make money from kratom?

US Pharm points out that, "No final decision has been published by the DEA at this time, so there is not yet a final determination of the future status of kratom." The author continues, "If the initial decision to ban kratom is ultimately reversed, it would stand in stark contrast to the DEA's August 2016 decision in another response to public and governmental appeals--to continue to regulate marijuana as a Schedule I drug."

The implications are clear: the DEA and the federal government are being hypocritical. The government demonizes marijuana by keeping it a Schedule I, while it winks at kratom, another plant that, like marijuana, isn't dangerous.

Canada's recent move to legalize cannabis demonstrates what a nation that cares about its citizens would do at this juncture. Canadians who were jailed for cannabis-related offenses will receive pardons, meaning they won't burden Canada's prison system. South of the Canadian border, cannabis criminals remain incarcerated. Canadians who benefit from marijuana's medicinal qualities can be happy their government supports them. Americans who need medicinal cannabis must move to a state that knows better than the federal government. And perhaps most importantly, Canadians have nothing to fear from drug war-induced violence. Americans are embroiled in the bloody war on drugs.

If there's anything to learn from the kratom saga, it's that there's hope. If we speak up and take action, it can influence government decisions. When the DEA was about to criminalize kratom, they received a petition with over 100,000 signatures in support of keeping it legal. The response from Congress was even more amazing -- because we're so used to lawmakers acting against our best interests. Mark Pocan, a Democrat, and Matt Salmon, a Republican, drafted a letter in support of kratom, and more than 50 Congresspeople signed it. We saw bipartisan support for a sensible decision.

The cynic in me wants to say it's because our representatives already see enough in the way of donations from pharma companies. Keeping kratom legal was a political win while they could maintain the pharma kickbacks for keeping marijuana illegal.

But the fact still remains: the DEA made the right decision by making no decision. To those of us who have a hard time believing in anything our representatives and federal agencies are doing right now, the kratom story is a chance to take heart. Just don't take too much heart. The DEA left the door open for criminalization.

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