A new watchdog group focused on kratom is ripping the federal government for what it characterizes as a full-scale war on the controversial herb, as well as the media, which is accused of simply parroting worst-case scenarios without even bothering to seek out other points of view.
"There's been attack after attack," says Max Karlin, spokesman for the Kratom Information & Resource Center. "That's why we call it a war. And there's a danger for the media if they don't look for a way to balance the attacks with anything other than just the Food and Drug Administration's anti-kratom message."
Denver has been ground zero for disputes over kratom ever since the city's Environmental Health department banned the substance for human consumption in November 2017, several days after the FDA issued an alert about alleged risks associated with the herb, which loyalists tout as a pain reliever and aid to fighting opioid addiction. Over time, other jurisdictions have made similar moves. Kratom is currently illegal in six states (Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin), can only be used by those eighteen and older in Illinois and New Hampshire, is restricted for those under 21 in Tennessee, and faces prohibitions in San Diego; Sarasota County, Florida; and Union County, Mississippi.
Why? According to a June 25 FDA news alert, the agency "continues to warn consumers not to use Mitragyna speciosa, commonly known as kratom, a plant that grows naturally in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea," because it "is not legally marketed in the United States as a drug or dietary supplement."
The passage adds that "while it is important to gather more evidence, data suggest that certain substances in kratom have opioid properties that expose users to the risks of addiction, abuse and dependence. There are no FDA-approved uses for kratom, and the agency has received concerning reports about the safety of kratom."
To Karlin, these assertions are "a little off-topic" given that the release is ostensibly about actions taken by the FDA against two firms (one in California, the other in North Carolina) for allegedly making unauthorized claims about kratom. "Sending a letter to a couple of companies would normally be a routine thing for an agency," he asserts. "But they've used it as an opportunity to crowbar in all these other attacks."
The response from the press — the story was picked up by NBC, USA Today, the Associated Press and a slew of other news purveyors — has compounded the problem, in Karlin's opinion. "There's a lack of reporting about both sides and, in the worst cases, almost a verbatim reprint of a very misleading news release. It's a piece of PR without any indication that's what it is."
Karlin insists that he isn't calling for articles that are entirely positive about kratom. Indeed, he has no beef with Westword over posts such as "Kratom Addiction: Colorado Clinics' Widely Different Reports" and "Two Parents' Kratom Stories: One Nightmare, One Miracle," which reflect the variance of reactions to the product.
As for the Kratom Information & Resource Center, "we compare it to coffee, because it's a natural herb in the coffee family," Karlin maintains. "It's not an opiate, it's not a synthetic. It's not even a drug. Dr. Jack Henningfield, a leading addiction expert, says its potential for addiction is on par with St. John's Wort and nutmeg. That's why we need to study this — because a national prohibition would make it virtually impossible to learn if kratom would be a major breakthrough for other things. We need to look at the science, because more research is the answer."
In this one area, the center and the feds share at least a little common ground. The aforementioned release includes the line, "The FDA encourages more research to better understand kratom’s safety profile, including the use of kratom combined with other drugs."
Nonetheless, most reports about kratom continue to portray it as a potential killer, including a new Gizmodo piece about a study published in the medical journal Pharmacotherapy that employed National Poison Data System reports to link its use to everything from agitation and drowsiness to comas and even deaths. The closest the piece comes to presenting another point of view is a single, awkwardly phrased sentence: "Some researchers, while calling for people to avoid kratom products advertised with clear medical benefits, aren’t so sure that kratom can’t be an effective treatment for opioid use disorder for some people."
That's not good enough, from Karlin's perspective. While the FDA is battling kratom, he's leading the fight against "journalistic reporting that fails to capture both sides."
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