The combined power of the U.S. Congress and social media has prompted the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to rethink its proposal to criminalize the use of kratom, a coffee-like plant that some believe could help stem the opioid epidemic.
More than 50 members of the House and Senate wrote letters in recent weeks, criticizing DEA for its sudden and unilateral move to reclassify kratom as a “Schedule I” substance, putting it in the same category as heroin. That would subject people in possession of the plant to severe criminal penalties.
Kratom does, in fact, have some of the same effects on the brain as opioid drugs, which is why it is used by some as a natural pain reliever. The plant, which is native to Southeast Asia, can be purchased online and inserted into capsules or brewed as a tea. Some grind the leaves into a powder and mix it into a drink.
Some health policymakers have said the plant could prove useful as a way to prevent opioid addiction and overdose deaths. Two of the lawmakers signing the letters to DEA are doctors.
Waiting for public comment
According to a preliminary document posted online, the DEA has now agreed to wait to get more input from the public before taking any action, a move that surprised but delighted kratom advocates.
The move is "shocking," according to John Hudak, a drug policy analyst at the Brookings Institution, who told The Washington Post the DEA action is out of character.
"The DEA is not one to second-guess itself, no matter what the facts are," he told the newspaper.
In explaining its action, the DEA said it had received “numerous comments” from the public since it published its notice of action on kratom. Before rendering a final decision, the agency said it will also receive a scientific and medical evaluation of the drug from the Food and Drug Administration.
The public will have until December 1 to submit comments to the DEA through the Federal Docket Management System.