Kratom: the push for pain-relieving recognition in the US

By Drew Wayland

Two and a half years ago, Daniel Horne was in a bad accident. Driving home from a date with his fiancé, Annie, on a poorly lit two-lane highway, a drunk driver lost control of his vehicle and slid into the wrong lane. The oncoming car clipped Horne’s silver Subaru and sent both vehicles spinning off the road, where Horne and his fiancé ran into a loblolly pine tree.

Horne came out relatively lucky, with just cuts, bruises and a permanently aching back. Annie shattered both of her ankles.

Daniel and Annie were thankful to be alive. But now they faced a problem seemingly without solution. Horne, a recovering addict and alcoholic, had committed to a life without narcotics since October 30, 2015. He and his fiancé now had chronic, debilitating pain they could not treat with prescription drugs without risking Horne’s life.

He had been in severe pain for seven months when a friend told him to check out something called kratom

A second chance at pain relief

“I tell people all the time that I would probably be dead or in jail without kratom,” says Horne. “I’m not sure I would have been able to live with the pain without relapsing at some point.”

Kratom is a plant in the coffee family that originated in Southeast Asia. In the last five years, it made an explosive entrance to American drug and medicine industries, going from a relatively obscure compound used by Thai and Malaysian immigrants, to a substance consumed by nearly 10 million Americans. However, the substance is still far from a household name.

“My friend told me it was kind of like tea or coffee,” he said. “This plant you mix into a drink, and it helps people with their pain. I didn’t know back then that it would do so much for my life, that it would allow me to be a functioning member of society again.”

Kratom has opioid properties, but acts more like a mild stimulant than a true opiate, like prescription oxycodone, Xanax or heroin. It is known to reduce anxiety, depression, and chronic pain for many users, and helps recovering addicts manage withdrawal symptoms. The plant is not addictive in the medical sense, but it is on a similar level of caffeine in the habit-forming sense.

“Part of the reason people like myself are hesitant to use kratom is because of its association with recreational drugs,” says Horne. “I’d go to my Narcotics Anonymous meetings and everybody would say, ‘no, don’t touch that stuff, it’s just another substance,’ but I think that fear really holds people back from trying something that could save their life.”

Local lounge gets behind kratom

Horne’s friend told him about a tea lounge in Carrboro, called Oasis, that specializes in kratom. Two years ago, he walked into the shop tucked away in a forgotten corner of Carr Mill Mall, to a scene of ornate rugs, religious statues, Rastafarian art and incense. There, he met Robert Roskind.

Roskind opened Oasis in 2012 as “a place of sharing and spreading love to all.” After an upbringing in Atlanta, a young adulthood spent in the West Coast counterculture of the 1960s and ‘70s, and a decade of activism in 2000s Jamaica, he was ready to come home and plant the seeds of everything he’d learned on his journey. Roskind tried kratom for the first time in 2016, on the advice of his daughter.

“I really understood why they call it the happiness plant,” he says. “It gives me the energy of consuming caffeine, but it also lifts the spirit and facilitates better moods. You aren’t intoxicated on kratom, if anything you’re a little more in touch with yourself and the world around you.”

Users have reported increased focus and sociability under the influence of kratom. Roskind uses one variety, green kratom, to power himself through his busy days and another, red kratom, to relax in the evenings. Oasis sells two other varieties, white and Maeng Da, which correspond to high energy and pain prevention, respectively. Kratom has been their biggest source of revenue since they started selling it in 2017.

About 1% to 2% of people have negative side effects to the substance in the form of light-headedness or nausea. The biological reasons for this are not yet well understood, but Roskind says there may be a connection between frequent users of marijuana and the adverse effects.

“Maybe there’s some chemical reason for it, or maybe those two plants just don’t like each other very much,” he says. “But I’ve seen incredible results from most people who try it. We have about 25 people who buy from us to help treat their addictions or their chronic pains, and we give it to them at a discounted rate. A couple people come in who are just barely making ends meet, and for situations like that I’ll just give it away.”

Horne gets the discounted rate at Oasis, and has befriended Robert in the two years he’s been using the substance. He takes three drinks per day, a level teaspoon of kratom in a glass of orange juice, and says it drastically reduces his back pain and his desire to return to drugs.

“I was a heroin addict, but you could call me a trash can,” he likes to say about his life before 2015. “I would pretty much do anything in front of me. Drugs led me to stealing stuff, which led me to going to jail. It also led me to being sentenced to a two-year long-term treatment facility. At that time, I was not a productive member of society, I was anything but.”

Roskind says it motivates him to see people using kratom to improve their lives.

“I see him with his family on Facebook, playing with his son, taking trips with his family, and it brings me so much joy,” he says. “This has really helped him turn his life around.”

Kratom gets a second chance in the US

Kratom has a special position of legality that many medicinal drugs in the United States do not. It is legal for sale and consumption in all but five states, although trade over the internet is restricted by the federal government. In 2016, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made a move to ban kratom for recreational use, but thousands of letters and testimonies by recovering addicts and people with chronic pain put a stop to the action.

“People were writing to their congressmen and senators and telling them ‘if this goes away, you are going to have thousands of people in your state turning back to opiate addiction,’” says Roskind. “You know, people were saying that they needed this to live a normal life.”

In a rare moment for the FDA, the pressure stuck and the ban failed to go through Congress. Similar protests occurred on the state level, and kratom remained legal in 45 states.

“You still have to be careful where you source from,” Roskind says. “Because in some cases, poorly produced kratom can carry traces of heavy metals. A lot of that is people buying it over the internet using cryptocurrencies.”

On any given afternoon, the Oasis lounge is populated by a few people enjoying the benefits of the plant. Robert can point around the room: “one, two, three, four, five…well, actually I think all of them are drinking kratom right now.” Recovering addicts and people with mental or physical pain are his favorite customers, but many young people use it recreationally to relax or be more social.

Horne says he respects the recreational use, but hopes that the substance can someday have mainstream appeal as a tool for recovery.

“Whether it’s because of that strict addict mindset of not compromising your sobriety or something bigger, with pharmaceutical companies wanting to reduce competition, it just isn’t as popular in the US as you might think,” he says. “That’s why I like to talk about it. To spread the word about something that can help people.”

Edited by Alana Askew