Authorities: Legal opioid substitute is dangerous, even deadly

Kratom compounds are pending scheduling by the DEA
Published: Jun. 4, 2019 at 9:14 AM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Ten counties and 23 cities in north Mississippi have banned an opioid replacement called Kratom. While it’s readily available for purchase at local stores, authorities say it has caused deaths right here in the Magnolia state.

Kratom is highly addictive, said neurologist and addiction specialist Dr. Scott Hambleton. It is used for its opioid-like effects similar to those of morphine and heroin.

The drug comes from a tree in the coffee family that grows in Thailand and other regions of southeast Asia. It attaches to the same synapses that opioids do, Hambleton said. Kratom has also been known to cause psychosis and hallucinogens and other dangerous side effects.

“The concentrations of the psychoactive substances that are in Kratom can vary greatly from one sample to the next,” Mississippi Crime Lab Controlled Substance Analysis Section Chief Erik Frazure said.

Naloxone, which reverses an opioid overdose, is ineffective on Kratom. The drugs have also been known to cause psychosis and hallucinogens and other dangerous side effects.

Kratom can be extremely dangerous because there’s no regulation on it. It can be bought in some gas stations, vape shops, and tobacco stores, among other places, but there’s no oversight as to what is in each individual package of the drug. Kratom comes in attractive, brightly-colored packages of pills, as powder, and in shot bottles similar to energy shots.

The FDA issued a public health advisory related to mounting concerns about Kratom in November 2017.

“Proponents argue that it’s a safe substance largely because it’s a plant-based product. The FDA knows people are using kratom to treat conditions like pain, anxiety and depression, which are serious medical conditions that require proper diagnosis and oversight from a licensed health care provider. We also know that this substance is being actively marketed and distributed for these purposes. Importantly, evidence shows that kratom has similar effects to narcotics like opioids, and carries similar risks of abuse, addiction and in some cases, death. Thus, it’s not surprising that often kratom is taken recreationally by users for its euphoric effects. At a time when we have hit a critical point in the opioid epidemic, the increasing use of kratom as an alternative or adjunct to opioid use is extremely concerning,” says a statement on their website.

But it’s still available in Mississippi. As the research went on for this story, we were able to buy Kratom in several different convenience stores and a tobacco store.

In 2018, law enforcement agencies made efforts to get the legislature pass a bill to schedule the drug, but it died in committee. That’s when the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics took to the streets to do it city by city, county by county.

“Through communications with community leaders and their local elected officials, the effort to ban Kratom took flight,” MBN Director John Dowdy told WLBT in a statement. “In northeast Mississippi, as well as other parts of the state, Kratom has become a significant drug issue. We will likely expand and continue the effort in other areas where the data show a need.”

The substance is now banned in several jurisdictions across the northern part of the state, as well as in Tennessee, Alabama and other states. But in south Mississippi, it’s not as well known, by far. Dowdy said there have been 12 overdoses that can be linked to Kratom statewide.

“In these types of situations when you overdose, it’s opioid related, opiate type symptoms, shortness of breath, nausea, itching, respiratory system shuts down,” said Frazure. “You basically stop breathing.”

So why isn’t it being talked about? Authorities aren’t sure, but they say the danger is here as well.

Drug Enforcement Agency spokeswoman Debora Webber told us that the DEA recommended Schedule 1 placement for two compounds in Kratom in October 2017, and currently the scheduling is pending.

“The two principal opioid compounds in kratom DEA has sought to place in Schedule I are: 1) Mitragynine and 2) 7-Hydroxymitraynine,” Webber said in an email to WLBT. “Both are abused for their opioid-like effects that are similar to those produced by other opioid drugs including morphine (Schedule II) and other Schedule I opioids, such as heroin.”

“We’ve learned a tragic lesson from the opioid crisis: that we must pay early attention to the potential for new products to cause addiction and we must take strong, decisive measures to intervene,” wrote FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D. “From the outset, the FDA must use its authority to protect the public from addictive substances like kratom, both as part of our commitment to stemming the opioid epidemic and preventing another from taking hold.”

Mississippi Counties that have banned Kratom:

  • Alcorn
  • Tishomingo
  • Prentiss
  • Itawamba
  • Lowndes
  • Union
  • Monroe
  • Calhoun
  • Tippah
  • Noxubee

Mississippi Cities that have banned Kratom:

  • Columbus
  • Caledonia
  • New Albany
  • Fulton
  • Mantachie
  • Pontotoc
  • Booneville
  • Corinth
  • Belmont
  • Marietta
  • Iuka
  • Ripley
  • Derma
  • Bruce
  • Calhoun city
  • Vardaman
  • Guntown
  • Okolona
  • Senatobia
  • Saltillo
  • Burnsville
  • Tishomingo city
  • Blue mountain

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