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Kratom: Herbal supplement or dangerous drug?

Kratom is an herb that legally available in the U.S. It's promoted as a way to get addicts of opioids, but others say it's deadly and should be banned.


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Published: 11/8/2017 5:11:13 PM
Updated: 2:49 PM CST November 30, 2017

You've probably never heard of Kratom.

It’s a tree that grows in South East Asian countries like Thailand and Malaysia. Its leaves can be chewed, dried and crushed into a powder or brewed into tea.

Kratom is being promoted as a way to get addicts off heroin, pain pills and even give people relief from PTSD. But grieving parents who have lost their children to Kratom say it’s a dangerous unregulated substance.

And it's currently the center of a battle between the federal government and those who swear by its benefits.

The medicinal herb Kratom is legal in most of the country. It’s not an opioid, but it acts like one. In low doses, it’s a stimulant and in high doses it acts like a sedative.

The herb has been ruled as the cause of death for Guy Garcia's death in 2013. Garcia, a 36-year-old husband and new father, had a very serious grand mal seizure in front of his mother and his son. He was rushed to the hospital, where he was declared brain dead.

His official cause of death was apparent acute mitragynine toxicity. Mitragynine is the main organic compound in Kratom.

On July 7 of this year, 27-year-old Christopher Waldron died in Tampa, FL. His autopsy showed a couple of things: a thyroid and heart condition, a muscle relaxer, a prescription antidepressant and Kratom in his system.

A month later, on August 8, 27-year-old Sergeant Matthew Dana, from Tupper Lake, New York died from bleeding in his lungs. His official cause of death has been listed as “Hemorrhagic Pulmonary Edema due to Kratom overdose.”

While this herb is credited for these deaths and others, some people say Kratom saved their lives.

Tim Davis is a photographer, a YouTube blogger, and a daily Kratom user. He credits the herb with getting him off opioid pain pills, like Percocet and Vicodin, prescribed to him for back pain.

"It took all the pain away, it took all the feelings from the pills away. I felt like myself again," he said.

But some medical professionals disagree. They say that when they see people using Kratom, they act like opioid addicts.

Addiction psychiatrist Dr. George Kolodner is currently treating two patients for Kratom.

"You can get addicted to it and it's not highly addictive, but it is addictive," he said. "We know there is some danger attached to it.

In fact, the Drug Enforcement Administration says from 2014 to 2016, 15 people died worldwide from Kratom.

But then the American Kratom Association ordered its own studies and says there were no deaths linked solely to the substance.

And that's what the fight between the DEA and Kratom supporters is all about.

Kratom at CBD Kratom in south St. Louis

Last year, the DEA wanted to ban Kratom, putting it in the same category as heroin, ecstasy and LSD. Kratom supporters responded by sending more than 20,000 comments to the feds, urging that Kratom remain legal. They also sent the White House a petition with 140,000 signatures.

A few weeks later, the DEA stopped its efforts to ban the substance, which was a relief for businesses that sell the herb.

The St. Louis chapter of the National Council of Alcohol and Drug Abuse told 5 On Your Side that when it comes to Kratom, the jury is still out.

"We think it needs more regulation and more research," said Brandon Costerison with the NCADA.

In fact, the Food and Drug Administration is currently doing research on Kratom, and the DEA says the substance remains a drug of concern.

Contributing: WUSA's Erin Spaht, Peggy Fo, Chris Mullen, KUSA Producer Katie Wilcox, KUSA Photographer Manny Sotelo, WTSP Reporter Beau Zimmer and WTSP Photographer Angela Clooney