Heroin Alternative Triggers Addictions ; Kratom's Narcotic Effects Cause Dependency, but Advocates See Benefits

By Schwarz, Alan | International New York Times, January 4, 2016 | Go to article overview

Heroin Alternative Triggers Addictions ; Kratom's Narcotic Effects Cause Dependency, but Advocates See Benefits


Schwarz, Alan, International New York Times


The supplement is seen as a natural painkiller in the United States, where only a few states ban its sale, but experts say it can lead back to heroin.

Three shaky months into recovery from heroin addiction, Dariya Pankova found something to ease her withdrawal. A local nonalcoholic bar sold a brewed beverage that soothed her brain and body much as narcotics had. A perfect solution -- before it backfired.

Ms. Pankova grew addicted to the beverage itself. She drank more and more, awakened her cravings for the stronger high of heroin, and relapsed. Only during another stay in rehab did Ms. Pankova learn that the drink's primary ingredient, a Southeast Asian leaf called kratom, affects the brain like an opiate and can be addictive, too.

"It's preying on the weak and the broken," said Ms. Pankova, 23, a Brooklyn native who received treatment in Delray Beach. "It's a mind-altering substance, so people like me who are addicts and alcoholics, they think just because it's legal, it's fine. It's a huge epidemic down here, and it's causing a lot of relapses."

Some users embrace kratom as a natural painkiller and benign substitute for more dangerous substances that, in most states, is legal. But its growing popularity and easy availability are raising concerns among substance abuse experts and government officials who say it is being furtively marketed as a way out of addiction, even though it is itself addictive. Worse, some of those experts say, kratom can lead some addicts back to heroin, which is cheaper and stronger.

"It's a fascinating drug, but we need to know a lot more about it," said Dr. Edward W. Boyer, a professor of emergency medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and a co-author of several scientific articles on kratom. "Recreationally or to self- treat opioid dependence, beware -- potentially you're at just as much risk" as with an opiate.

Concern is particularly high in South Florida, where a rising concentration of drug-treatment providers has coincided with the sprouting of kratom bars. But kratom is now available around the country. Powdered forms of the leaf are sold at head shops and gas- station convenience stores and on the Internet. Bars have recently opened in Colorado, New York, North Carolina and other states where customers nurse brewed varieties, varying in strength, from plastic bottles that resemble those for fruit juice.

Kratom exists in a kind of legal purgatory. Because it is categorized as a botanic dietary supplement, the Food and Drug Administration cannot restrict its sale unless it is proved unsafe or producers claim that it treats a medical condition. (Some packages are coyly labeled "not for human consumption" to avoid tripping such alarms.)

The F.D.A. did ban the import of kratom into the United States in 2014, however, under its authority when a substance is strongly suspected to be harmful. That year, marshals seized 25,000 pounds of it from a Los Angeles warehouse.

The United States Drug Enforcement Administration has listed kratom as a "drug of concern" but not a controlled substance, which would require proven health risks and abuse potential. Indiana, Tennessee, Vermont and Wyoming have banned it on their own; other states, including Florida and New Jersey, have set aside similar bills until more is known about kratom's health risks. The Army has forbidden its use by soldiers.

Kratom has been linked to seizures and respiratory depression, but deaths related to it appear rare. Linda Mautner, who lives in the Delray Beach area, has asserted that her 20-year-old son, Ian, committed suicide in 2014 in the throes of kratom addiction, but Ian was also receiving treatment for depression. …

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