DEA backs off kratom ban after public backlash

WASHINGTON — The Drug Enforcement Agency is backing off a plan to ban kratom, an herb that some claim helps treat chronic pain, anxiety, addiction and depression.

Kratom is marketed in the U.S. as a dietary supplement. It's usually sold as powder, dried or crushed leaves or in capsule form. Supporters say the herb is about as addictive as coffee. Recovering drug addict Cory Lutz says kratom helps him stay clean.

“This replaced my ever having a want to use drugs,” Lutz said. “And my need for ever needing prescription medications for fixing anything I have with ADD and ADHD."

The DEA announced in August plans to reclassify kratom as a dangerous drug in the same category as heroin, cocaine and marijuana.

Since then, the agency received thousands of phone calls from the public supporting the herb. Members of Congress questioned whether components of kratom could lead to a safer alternative to powerful prescription painkillers.

The DEA now says it no longer wants to ban kratom, at least not yet. The agency will consider the public's comments before taking any further action.

The DEA also is asking the Food and Drug Administration to speed up a scientific and medical evaluation of kratom.

The DEA reports 15 known kratom-related deaths nationwide in the past two years. There’s also been a slight increase in kratom-related reports to poison control centers across the U.S. so far this year.

Lauren Eden says kratom led to her son’s suicide.

“It's not safe and it's highly addictive," Eden said.

John Eden, 22, was a Pennsylvania college student. He took his life at a gas station. His mother says boxes of kratom in various forms were found in his apartment. He also left a letter.

“He wrote in it, mom and dad, I loved you very much,” Eden said. “Please know there is nothing you can do but I have ruined myself with drugs.”

Kratom is a plant found in Southeast Asia. It’s unregulated by the FDA. Doctors say there isn’t enough evidence to suggest kratom can help wean people off heroin or powerful prescription pain pills.

Dr. Arvind Venkat at Allegheny General Hospital in Pennsylvania says kratom could do more harm than good.

“Reports suggest it’s not as potent as heroin or Vicodin,” Venkat said. “But there are also reports there are tremendous side-effects including seizures.”

A White House petition urging the DEA to leave kratom unregulated has more than 140,000 signatures. Comments from users claim the supplement helps them overcome chronic pain and anxiety. Others say the plant has helped them overcome an opioid addiction.

The DEA will accept public comments from Oct. 13 until Dec. 1. Then a number of things could happen. The agency could leave kratom unregulated; it could permanently ban the supplement, which would require another comment period; or, the DEA could temporarily ban kratom without any additional comment.