On 31 August 2016, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) issued what would become a controversial notice of intent to ban increasingly popular herbal analgesic kratom.
The notice dealt a blow to a cottage industry of vendors, as well as to individuals familiar with kratom, also known as Mitragyna speciosa. Kratom is a relative of the coffee plant native to Southeast Asia, and the powdered leaf began gaining popularity among sufferers of chronic pain as an alternative to opiate painkillers in the years leading up to the ban. Many users balked at the sudden announcement and maintained that a ban on kratom would lead to increased overdose deaths among those formerly addicted to opiates:
— Sarah Elizabeth (@sarah_emming) September 16, 2016
Kratom advocates began a multi-pronged fight to reverse the DEA’s decision, initially scheduled to take effect on 30 September 2016. Many of those individuals staged a protest in Washington D.C. to oppose the ban:
Susan Ash, founder of the American Kratom Association consumer group, which organized a Sept. 13 protest at the White House, says she remains hopeful that the ban won’t go into effect for two compounds in kratom that would essentially ban the plant.
“I feel a lot of hope because the amount of congresspeople who are paying attention to this issue and the media and the public are really weighing in our favor — it’s finally coming to light who the average kratom consumer is,” Ash says.
Those users include recovering heroin, cocaine and alcohol addicts, fibromyalgia patients, and people with arthritis and cancer, according to a sampling of attendees at the White House protest. Some veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and people with depression say it has helped them, too.
By 23 September 2016, a “large and bipartisan” group of 51 members of the House of Representatives had signed on to a letter [PDF] strenuously objecting to the DEA’s decision to ban kratom, given scant evidence of harm and no public comment period. The letter noted the brief period between the issuance of notice and the stringent regulatory move:
The National Institutes of Health has funded a joint study conducted by the University of Massachusetts and the University of Mississippi to investigate the use of kratom as a remedy for opioid withdrawal. This study led the researchers to apply for a patent identifying the kratom extract, mitragynine, as a useful treatment for other addictive drugs besides opiate derivatives. The DEA’s decision to place kratom as a Schedule I substance will put a halt on federally funded research and innovation surrounding the treatment of individuals suffering from opioid and other addictions—a significant public health threat.
… This significant regulatory action was done without any opportunity for public comment from researchers, consumers and other stakeholders.This hasty decision could have serious effects on consumer access and choice of an internationally recognized herbal supplement.
The grassroots efforts appears to have made a large impact. On 12 October 2016, news reports announced that the DEA had withdrawn their notice of intent in a rare reversal of policy:
The Drug Enforcement Administration is reversing a widely criticized decision that would have banned the use of kratom, a plant that researchers say could help mitigate the effects of the opioid epidemic.
Citing the public outcry and a need to obtain more research, the DEA is withdrawing its notice of intent to ban the drug, according to a preliminary document that will be posted to the Federal Register [on 13 October 2016].
The move is “shocking,” according to John Hudak, who studies drug policy at the Brookings Institution. “The DEA is not one to second-guess itself, no matter what the facts are.”
Marc Swogger, a clinical psychologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center who has published research on kratom use and earlier called the decision to ban the plant “insane,” said in an email that “I’m happy to see this. It is a step in the right direction and a credit to people who have spoken out against scheduling this plant … now, the government should take into account, not just the minimal available scientific data on kratom, but the broader impact that criminalizing the use of this plant will have on vulnerable citizens.”
In an entry [PDF] scheduled for publication in the Federal Register on 13 October 2016, the DEA said:
On August 31, 2016, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) published in the Federal Register a notice of intent to temporarily place mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine, which are the main psychoactive constituents of the plant Mitragyna speciosa, also referred to as kratom, into schedule I pursuant to the temporary scheduling provisions of the Controlled Substances Act. Since publishing that notice, DEA has received numerous comments from members of the public challenging the scheduling action and requesting that the agency consider those comments and accompanying information before taking further action. In addition, DEA will receive from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) a scientific and medical evaluation and scheduling recommendation for these substances, which DEA previously requested. DEA is therefore taking the following actions: DEA is withdrawing the August 31, 2016 notice of intent; and soliciting comments from the public regarding the scheduling of mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine under the Controlled Substances Act.
Susan Ash of the American Kratom Association (AKA) responded to the DEA’s withdrawal of their intent to schedule kratom thusly:
Today we are thankful to the DEA for listening to the voices of consumers, congresspeople and research scientists studying this plant … We still believe no scheduling is necessary because it’s been used safely here in the U.S. for decades and across the world for millennia. While we are very thankful that our voices are heard today, we still have a lot of work cut out for us.
According to the DEA’s “Withdrawal of Notice of Intent to Temporarily Place Mitragynine and 7- Hydroxymitragynine into Schedule I,” the agency planned to allow for a public comment period and additional information from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before taking further action.