Heather Crawford anchors. 9/29/2016
UPDATE (10/12/2016 @ 3:15 p.m.)—The Drug Enforcement Agency will withdrawal its notice of intent to schedule herbal supplement Kratom.
The ban would have turned many users into felons overnight - putting Kratom on the same level of illegality as heroin and marijuana.
Kratom is used by many chronic pain sufferers as an alternative to the cocktail of pain pills many sufferers are put on.
DEA says the withdrawal of the notice of intent to schedule #kratom is first time in DEA's history the agency has withdrawn such a notice.— Heather Crawford (@HeatherFCN) October 12, 2016
UPDATE (9/29/2016 @ 10:26 p.m.)—Kratom will not be banned this week.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It's natural, legal and available in stores and online. Many chronic pain suffers say it’s an herbal remedy that’s finally given them their life back and helped them be pain free, but as soon as this week it could be banned.
This week a letter with bi-partisan support is being sent to the DEA from 45 members of Congress asking the agency to delay banning kratom and provide ample time for public comment.
The Drug Enforcement Agency says kratom is an imminent hazard to public safety.
As early as September 30, 2016 the DEA plans to enact a temporary emergency ban on the two active materials in kratom making it a Schedule 1 controlled substance in the same category as heroin, LSD and marijuana.
That means if you have kratom in your possession, or use it after the ban goes into effect you can be arrested and charged with a felony.
Julie Bass, a stay-at-home Jacksonville mom, is one of thousands opposed to banning kratom. She says since she started taking it she’s been able to ween off numerous prescription medications.
“These are all the medications that I have been able to replace with kratom alone. There's a combination of antidepressants, pain medications, opiate pain medications, muscle relaxers, anti-anxiety, hormone therapy, blood pressure medication.” said Bass.
She says she has struggled with chronic back pain since she was a teenager. Doctors put her on a growing cocktail of prescription medications. She even had back surgery but the pain didn't go away.
“The Tramadol was not helping anymore. So they put me on something stronger -- Hydrocodone. Those things work for a little while and then they stop working and the next the next option is to put you on more potent painkillers.”
She started taking kratom last year. It's a tree-like plant in the same family as coffee, indigenous to Southeast Asia where it's been used for hundreds of years.
“People ask all the time, 'What is it like?' I've never been high off of it. It feels like drinking a cup of coffee. It gives you a little bit energy like a cup of coffee and it takes away the pain,” explained Bass.
She now brews kratom leaves into a tea.
“I feel like my life is back,” said Bass.
Over the past year the DEA says it has seen a huge spike in kratom use in the United States. At low doses it can produce a mild stimulant effect. Higher does are reported to have opioid-like effects.
When Bass found out about the DEA’s planned ban, she cried.
“I say I will never go back to opiates again. I don't want something that controls my life and that's how I felt,” said Bass.
The American Kratom Society says kratom can help with not only pain but also fatigue, depression, anxiety, PTSD, and is being used to ease off opiates and to help manage addiction.
“Now are there some companies out there that are adding things to it that are questionable, absolutely, and we want that to change," said Bass. “So in hopes of bringing light to this that maybe we can work along with the DEA and the FDA and let's get some research done. With all these testimonies saying that it's helping people, why ban it?”
DEA Spokesman Russ Baer said kratom has no "current accepted medical use" and has a high potential for abuse.
"Those are the two primary factors that we are considering in terms of placing kratom as a Schedule One controlled substance,” said Baer. “When you're considering 15 related kratom death's, kratom used either individually or in combination with alcohol or other drugs it does pose an imminent hazard to the public safety.”
A hazard, Dr. Lawrence Fox, a researcher with the National Institutes of Health says he’s seen firsthand.
“I phoned 911 and said don’t send an ambulance with lights and sirens blaring through intersections. There’s no one here to save. He’s dead,” recalled Dr. Fox.
He had never heard of kratom until he found his son, Alex, 20, dead in his bedroom three years ago and nearby a package of kratom. He says an autopsy showed his son had ingested it. The death certificate lists mitragynine and o-desmethyl-tramadol intoxication. Mitragynine is an active ingredient in kratom.
“I touched him and his body was icy cold and I tried to move him and he was stiff. That meant rigor mortis had set in which meant I knew as a physician he had died about twelve hours earlier,” said Fox. “I sound cool describing it now. You must realize that I was going crazy walking in and finding my son dead, and you know the physician part of me was analyzing what was going on and the father was screaming.”
Dr. Fox says his son had struggled with opiates and kratom was marketed as being safe.
"The risk of course is that this has sedating properties. Alex probably died simply being over-sedated and unable to breathe. Had I not mentioned to the medical examiner that we found this specimen nothing would have shown up out of the ordinary in the tests that were done.”
Dr. Fox says until there’s more research done on kratom he wants a ban in place.
A ban more than 135,000 people who have signed a White House petition oppose. That includes Bass.
Simple tasks like coloring and sitting used to be too painful to do. Not anymore.
“I'm a soccer mom, I'm not a drug addict. I don't want prescription pain meds. I want to be out of pain, but I don't want prescription pain meds because every time I take them you want more and more,” said Bass. “This works differently.”
With kratom she says her cravings are gone and so is her pain.
“It’s a miracle for me. Is it going to be a miracle for everybody? No, but none of these drugs are, none of them," said Bass. “This is giving me pain relief without the personality change. It has given me the energy to go out and play with my daughter. You know, I couldn't do that.”
Nationwide from 2010 to 2015 U.S. poison centers received 660 calls about reported exposure to kratom.
Florida's Poison Control Control Center in Jacksonville reports there were 0 reported calls about kratom from 2010 to 2013 statewide, 6 in 2014, 8 in 2015 and 17 exposures so far in 2016 in Florida.
A 2014 National Institutes of Health report said while kratom may have analgesic, muscle relaxant and anti-inflammatory effects, its addictive properties and effects on cognitive performance are unknown.
Kratom, right now, is unregulated.
“That's one of the biggest issues with this product other than not being regulated and prescribed by a physician who then is in charge of monitoring you and possible adverse outcome of it. We don't know how many milligrams of the active ingredient are in each leaf or each product,” said Patrick Leffers, a clinical toxicology and emergency medicine fellow at University of Florida Health Poison Information Center
The DEA says this temporary ban will last two to three years while the agency along with the FDA evaluate both the good and bad.
“Although this is a “temporary/emergency” scheduling, it typically takes the entire three years that are allowed under this authority in order to conduct the necessary studies, evaluation, and information gathering to permanently schedule a substance,” said Baer. “We want to have constructive dialogue but the scientific rigorous studies that I'm referring to are woefully inadequate at this point. So we need to have additional research into whether or not kratom has medical benefits and if it does then we will have a different conversation, but until we get to that point we cannot rely upon public opinion and anecdotal evidence.”
Research, he says, can still be conducted even with a ban in place.
“I want the DEA to know that we do want to see some studies on it. We're in favor of making sure that it stays out of head shops. We are in favor of making sure that someone under eighteen does not get it I don't want it to be peddled as an opium substitute. I want the facts to be known. I want them to take another look and see that it's not what you think it is. Education not prohibition.”
“I think kratom might have useful applications. I think it would be reasonable to study it. I think until we know what the safe dose it, what potentially harmful dose it is it shouldn’t be simply ordered,” said Dr. Fox. “I think this is very important life or death safety issue.”
The DEA says this temporary emergency ban could take place as early as September 30th, but a definitive date has not yet been set. The agency says it is considering whether or not to open up the dialogue to the public.
Below, watch DEA spokesperson Russ Baer answer questions from First Coast News On Your Side investigator Heather Crawford:
Heather Crawford is on your side 9/19/2016
On Monday the American Kratom Association plans to submit a 40-page legal challenge to the DEA spelling out why it believes this government overreach on a plant they do not believe poses an imminent health threat.
“Veterans, grandparents, moms and dads, professionals in all fields including medical and law enforcement are utilizing this herb safely and responsibly for their health and well-being. The average kratom consumer is about 40 years old and gainfully employed,” said Susan Ash, founder and director from the American Kratom Association. “This is drug policy failure at its finest; prohibition that will turn your neighbors into felons just for using a safe and natural alternative to pharmaceutical medications.”
Below is a letter that we received signed by 45 members of Congress asking the DEA to not ban the principle substance in kratom without further research:
Stay with First Coast News as we continue to follow this story.