As the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration weighs the legal future of kratom, five states have already banned the botanical drug, making criminals out of the people who say they rely on it to improve their quality of life.
HuffPost spoke with more than a dozen kratom consumers currently or formerly living in those states ― Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Wisconsin and Vermont. All have been affected by the outlawing of the herb and products that contain its active ingredients, mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine.
Their experiences underscore the high stakes of a potential federal ban on kratom. Some consumers have been unwilling to sacrifice the benefits they’ve gotten from kratom, and have kept using it despite the legal risks. A few now face serious repercussions as a result. This demand suggests a robust black market for kratom will continue to exist, regardless of its legal status.
For consumers deterred from kratom use by a ban, the results also could be hurtful. Many people who take kratom suffer from severe medical conditions that they’ve been unable to treat effectively with prescription drugs alone. Others use kratom as a replacement for other more powerful opioids. If it’s taken away, they may end up back on ineffective or problematic medications, or worse, on potentially deadly opioids.
In recent years, state and local lawmakers have moved to classify kratom as a Schedule 1 substance, alongside drugs such as heroin and LSD. The DEA may follow suit, and could make a decision as soon as this summer. Kratom is derived from the leaves of a Southeast Asian tree related to coffee plants and federally regulated as an herbal supplement, but some of the five states that have banned it have labeled it a synthetic drug.
State and federal policymakers have cited concerns about kratom’s safety and abuse potential, as well as its opioid-like effects. Although they’ve sought to lump it into a broader category of harmful and addictive opioids, those who take kratom often tout it as a more benign alternative to those drugs, as well as a natural treatment for conditions including anxiety and depression.
In the stories that follow, the persons interviewed asked to be identified only by their first name or by an alias so they could speak openly about the criminal activity associated with their efforts to feel better. If you’d like to share your experience with kratom in a state that has banned it, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s been almost five years since Cindysue was recommended kratom at an Indiana clinic that had been prescribing her opioids for chronic pain stemming from rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. She’s since managed to wean herself off of all prescription medications, including the ones she was taking for depression and anxiety.
Cindysue said kratom is ideal for her because she’d previously struggled with opioid dependence and is allergic to over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen. Her quality of life has improved with kratom, she said, and the more comfortable treatment regimen has helped her lose weight and be more active.
“I am now able to work outside my home, and have made major lifestyle health choices,” she said. “I have my family relationships restored and more importantly myself back.”
Cindysue said she’s just one of the many kratom consumers “living in the shadows” in states that have banned the herbal supplement (she gets her supply on the black market through a private vendor).
Although kratom allows her to live a more productive life, she acknowledged that some people who use it also struggle with opioid addiction. She said she’s worried that if the government bans kratom without doing anything to address those underlying problems, it will lead those individuals to use more dangerous substances.
“Without [kratom] I think there will be many deaths and people going back to bad habits and behaviors,” Cindysue said. “I do not want to go there.”
If a federal ban makes it impossible for Cindysue to get kratom, she said she’d resist turning back to prescription drugs for as long as she could.
Like many people who take kratom, Abbie said the herb saved her life.
She has been afflicted with daily chronic pain from severe scoliosis since the age of 15, and her quest for relief led her down a dark path to addiction. Doctors eventually prescribed her suboxone, a medication for opioid addiction. She took it for four years and for the most part it worked, but at a high cost, she said.
“By the way it made me feel, I might as well have been using heroin,” said Abbie. “I was a shell of a person and I always felt like I was doped up.”
After getting off suboxone against the advice of her doctor, Abbie started taking kratom. It effectively managed her pain without any debilitating side effects or the agonizing symptoms of withdrawal associated with opioid medications, she said.
“I didn’t feel gross, groggy and high, I felt normal,” said Abbie. “Most importantly, I was pain-free.”
But in 2016, shortly after she discovered kratom, her home state of Alabama banned it. Abbie got a P.O. box in a neighboring state, where she now receives kratom shipments.
“When I weighed the pros and cons, it was a no-brainer,” she said. “Kratom kept me from going back to the disgusting opiates that almost killed me, so there was no way I was going down without a fight.”
Still, Abbie said she grapples with the fear of being thrown in prison if she’s caught driving across state lines with a Schedule 1 substance.
“This little life-saving plant has caused me to risk my freedom, but what other choice did I have?” Abbie said. The alternatives to not using it, she added, are “either be in constant pain and have a hard time living my life and a hard time doing simple things, or go back to the old way of doing things and use drugs that will kill me.”
Abbie said she now works two jobs and has again become loving aunt and family member. If the federal government further restricts her access to kratom, she said it would take away the life she’s been able to reclaim ― even as it’s technically made her a criminal.
“I think I would try to stay strong for awhile, and I would like to believe that I would,” she said. “But if you have ever had severe pain, you can understand that sometimes you will do just about anything to make it go away.”
Lisa knew kratom was illegal in Alabama, but she said too much was at stake for her to quit.
“For once in my life, I wasn’t on welfare and food stamps,” said Lisa. “I was able to keep a job be a better mother for my kids.”
That was a huge improvement from a previous 15-year stretch she had spent struggling with opioid addiction, after being first being prescribed oxycontin in 2000 following the birth of her second child. Over the course of her recovery, she tried methadone and suboxone, but both drugs often left her nodding off and unable to function at work.
Kratom, which Lisa obtained in Florida, helped her turn her life around, she said. Although she would use it a few times throughout the day, she said she didn’t find herself craving it like she had opioids.
All was going well for Lisa, she said, when in February Alabama police knocked on her door with a search warrant and found her kratom. She’s now facing a felony charge for trafficking synthetic drugs, which could carry years in prison, all for possessing a kilogram of crushed leaves ― which typically costs around $ 80 and lasts her a month or two, she said.
After her arrest, Lisa stopped taking kratom. She said she’d always dreaded that thought, believing the withdrawals would be as horrible as the ones she’d felt during her years of opioid addiction. To her surprise, she felt almost no negative effects.
“I’m sober today and I can feel my feelings and I can love with my whole heart like I always wanted to,” Lisa said. “My sobriety has been tested but I haven’t used.”
Apart from her legal troubles, Lisa said she’s doing well. But if the government proceeds with a ban, she said everyone won’t be so fortunate.
“Other people that I know and I see that take kratom, if they take it away from them, they’re either gonna go back to pharmaceutical drugs or they’re gonna end up committing suicide,” she said. “And then you’re gonna have all these single mothers that are gonna be arrested the same way that I was, and their kids are gonna be taken away. If I didn’t have the money to hire a really good attorney, I wouldn’t have my kids today.”
When doctors diagnosed Connor with an anxiety disorder, their first line of attack was prescription benzodiazepines like Xanax.
Connor called them “one of the worst things that has ever happened” to him. Although he used the pills to combat intense anxiety attacks, he said they turned him into an “unfeeling zombie.” And when the drugs wore off, Connor’s anxiety only came back stronger. Kratom provided a marked improvement, he said, but as a resident of Arkansas, obtaining and consuming the herbal supplement was illegal.
Earlier this year, police pulled over Connor and officers eventually searched the car, he said. They found an empty water bottle with kratom residue in it, arrested Connor and took him to jail on felony charges for drug possession and intent to distribute.
When he was thrown in the “drug tank” of the lockup, Connor was left alone with one other inmate, he said.
“This guy revealed to me that he was on his third day of his [methamphetamine] binge,” Connor said. “Hours later I fell asleep on the floor only to be awoken by the guy… senselessly beating me. It appeared he was experiencing psychosis from not sleeping for days. He kicked me in the stomach repeatedly until I was able to fully wake up and push him off of me. I broke two ribs and my stomach was black with bruises. I was in jail for a day before my father was able to bail me out.”
Connor said the assault left him suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I still wake up at night thinking I’m getting the shit kicked out of me by a meth user,” he said. “I’m struggling but I’m getting better.
Connor is fighting the charges against him, but he said his story shows what’s likely to happen to other kratom users if police are given broader powers to crack down on the herbal drug.
“Do not expect the police to show any level of understanding,” he said. “In their eyes, kratom is nothing but a deadly drug. Kratom users are nothing more than useless junkies.”
Severe migraine disorder, fibromyalgia, post-traumatic stress, irritable bowel syndrome ― these are a few of the conditions Ginny deals with on a daily basis. She was able to find some relief with kratom until 2017, she said, when she moved to Arkansas, where kratom is banned.
“That’s when life got a lot more painful for me,” Ginny said. “Everyday is a struggle to keep going, provide for my kids and not lose my job.”
Ginny is reluctant to seek out prescription drugs, following what she described as a humiliating experience with a doctor who treated her like she was addicted to painkillers and not in legitimate need. She said she’s now relying on regular massages, herbal supplements and “pure stubbornness” to manage her pain.
None of that works as well as kratom did, Ginny said, and because she’s not willing to take the time or risk obtain it illegally, her quality of life has deteriorated.
She worries that she’s just “one flare-up” of pain away from losing her job and “being homeless again, hungry again and jobless again.”
“Trying to cope with little-to-no relief leaves me contemplating things like how much better off my kids would be if they had my life insurance instead of watching me in pain,” she said. But she added that she tries to ward off such thoughts by recognizing that “there’s just no one to take care of them if something would happen to me.”
Casey considers herself an outdoorsy person, but her life hasn’t always cooperated. Over an eight-year period starting in 2006, she broke her neck in a car accident, got hit by car and underwent surgery for endometriosis. Then she fell off a 60-foot cliff, collapsing both of her lungs and shattering all but two bones in her face.
The long road to recovery began with prescription opioids. The pills dulled her pain, but they also dulled everything else as well.
“I can’t function on them at work or any situation that involves thinking or moving because they make me super-nauseous, forgetful and cranky,” she said. “They also make me depressed after a few days of use.”
Due to severe intestinal problems, over-the-counter pain relievers are off the table for Casey, she said. Physical therapy helped a bit, but her extreme back, neck and head pain persisted. Once an avid hiker in the Vermont hills, her various injuries made a mile-long walk to work a challenge.
“I was severely depressed due to being a mere shell of my former self and not being able to get relief from pain, and was seriously thinking about committing suicide,” she said.
About five years ago, she added kratom to her treatment “arsenal” and got a different result.
“Though not a miracle cure, the pain relief and energy boost I got from kratom allowed me to work toward living the life I used to live before falling off that cliff,” Casey said. “If kratom were a person, I would owe them my life.”
Although she’d been able to get kratom on the black market for a number of years, as news of a possible federal ban mounted, vendors started getting spooked.
Fearing being cut off from kratom, Casey decided earlier this year that her best course of action would be to move across the country to Washington. After eight years in Vermont, she packed up her stuff and moved in with a friend in the West Coast state, preserving her access to both kratom and cannabis products (although Vermont has medical marijuana, Casey said she was unable to find the kind of oil that she said works best for her pain).
“Knowing that I can get the relief when I need it without having to jump through hoops on the dark web or spend hundreds of dollars trying to get it through a doctor is absolutely instrumental to maintaining a positive mental state,” she said. “I left behind the majority of my friends and family, and would someday like to move back, but until Vermont lifts the kratom ban or provides access to better medical or recreational marijuana, I’m staying here.”