WTF is Kratom?

By Kayla Johnson

It’s no secret that cannabis has been villainized throughout the last several decades. Before it was effectively banned for use or sale with the Cannabis Tax Act of 1937, cannabis was used throughout the world in vastly different cultures as a therapeutic or medicinal aid for thousands of years. Now, just in the last two decades, we’ve finally begun to see a reversal of this, though as we all know, positive change takes time if it’s going to be quality, lasting change. 

Unfortunately, cannabis isn’t alone in the ‘demonized-by-the-government’ club. Kratom has begun to gain traction as another natural alternative to man made pharmaceuticals, but, like our beloved plant of the cannabis variety, it has faced extreme prejudice. Kratom is not illegal here in Oklahoma, but in other states it is and, while efforts in 2016 to list it as a Schedule 1 drug alongside heroin and LSD failed, there’s no shortage of backlash against stores who sell it, and even patients who try it. Sounds familiar, right?  Anyone who’s followed cannabis history has heard this same song before. 

Kratom, or Mitragyna Speciosa, comes from the rainforests of Southeast Asia, where it has been used for centuries to treat pain, ease stress, anxiety and depression, and help promote focus and clarity. It’s a leafy plant that’s closely related to the coffee plant. Just as cannabis has different strains with different properties that are best used for different ailments, kratom also has a variety of strains, and its properties can vary by region.  Kratom contains alkaloids, which are naturally occurring chemical compounds.  The two primary alkaloids are Mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine. These bind to opioid receptors in the brain, which is why kratom has been shown to relieve even severe pain, and why it’s considered an opioid alternative. However, unlike traditional pharmaceutical opioids such as fentanyl or oxycontin, kratom does not recruit what’s called Beta-Arrestin in our systems, which is what causes respiratory depression that, in turn, can cause an overdose. 

Right now, with a vast majority of the states grappling with an alarming opioid crisis, an alternative to opioids that comes from a natural source with no withdrawal sounds like it could be the answer to the crisis. So why are so many people still opposed? Brett Martin and Mike Shirey, two Oklahomans who have opened a Kratom and CBD store called NAMAH,  believe it’s partially due to a lack of knowledge. 

“Before the big push came for cannabis legalization, we had to get correct, accurate information about the plant out there for people to be able to find and read. Kratom’s the same way.” Martin was first introduced to Kratom himself after a long, uphill battle with opioids. “I was over-prescribed pain medication, and I got hooked.” Like so many others, his own battle with addiction started in the doctor’s office. When he was introduced to Kratom, he says it changed his life. “It helped me to finally be able to taper off of the medication, and actually have a fulfilling life again. I could be productive and pain free both.” 

For Shirey, his business partner, it started much the same. “I was prescribed hydrocodone for my knees, and when I realized I was out, I started going through withdrawal, and turned to buying them on the street. I was definitely hooked. “ After almost a year of struggling with his own addiction, he saw an ad on a website for Kratom. “It sounded like a miracle, almost too good to be true, but I called the number and talked to the man and started to do my own research. “ After searching the internet and multiple forums for information, Shirey took a leap of faith and decided to order kratom online. “As soon as I got it in the mail and took it, it started to work. The relief was immediate. My pain, anxiety and those withdrawal symptoms I was struggling with, again, all disappeared, and I even slept better. It really felt like a miracle. I’ve been taking it ever since.”

With that lack of widespread knowledge often comes the vilification, just as we’ve seen with cannabis over the last century. Despite mounting belief that Kratom can be a safe, healthier alternative to many opioid painkillers for many patients, the FDA continues to state that there is no evidence that supports any medical use of Kratom. In fact, they’ve made a significant effort to share information about the possible side effects. The CDC even reported a tenfold increase to calls to poison centers in the United States related to Kratom between 2010 and 2015, though they’re less keen to share the fact that more than ⅓ of those calls involved kratom use mixed with narcotics or alcohol.

Just as any medicinal product should be from a clean, regulated source, people purchasing and using kratom from unsafe sources add fuel to the anti-kratom fire. Kratom that’s not been harvested or processed in a safe environment may not always be pure, or high quality kratom.   So as with medical marijuana, it’s important to know where your Kratom comes from. In May of 2018, the CDC reported that almost 200 people over 41 states had become ill from a salmonella infection linked to products containing kratom, though it was undetermined where the product was contaminated. 

The CDC and DEA both have made efforts to keep Kratom out of the spotlight of the American people, and it’s likely, in part, thanks to the ever-present influence of big pharmaceutical companies. Their profit markets shrink with each person that turns to cannabis or kratom for their pain relief instead of becoming dependent or hooked on potentially dangerous medication they have created. There’s no big money to be made if people are happy and healthy. 

It’s also widely believed that Kratom’s initial bad impression began when headshops across the country sold it, and it was grouped in with the wave of “reefer madness” that’s just now beginning to break. As people begin to open their eyes and see the truth about natural medicines, whether cannabis or kratom, the stigma and bad reputation will fade. 

After his success overcoming his own pain and addiction problems, Shirey had initially begun to work at a store that sold Kratom, and says it took off like lightning. “I knew the shop would do well because kratom had worked for me, and I could see that it was working for my customers as well.” While the partnership was eventually dissolved at the other partner’s choice, it gave Shirey an opportunity. While at the gym one day, he realized that this plant that has the potential to help so many people shouldn’t be all about profits, it should be about people and their health. “That’s the day the name of the store came to me. NAMAH is an acronym: Not About Money, About Health.”

For both Martin and Shirey, their past struggles with addiction brought them to Kratom, and eventually brought them together. “We wanted to help people get their lives back together, and to give them hope again if they’re struggling with an addiction from something they got from their doctor.”  NAMAH was opened in Shawnee in February of 2018 and has since opened other locations in Tahlequah, Ada, and Midwest City. Martin says his  passion for helping people reclaim their lives is rather personal. “I almost lost my family and my kids to my addiction battle, and I wouldn’t be in my position in life without Kratom.” For Shirey, it’s much the same. “We’ve seen family members and friends free themselves from addiction or prolonged use of opioids simply by incorporating kratom into their lives, it’s incredible.” 

Now that Kratom is slowly emerging into the spotlight, it’s no surprise that documentaries are being made to share information about the plant and its many uses. In 2018, the documentary “A Leaf of Faith” was put on Netflix and for anyone interested in learning more about Kratom, it’s a must-watch. 

Like with cannabis, the death of kratom’s use as a natural, safer alternative to prescription opioids and painkillers would stem from a lack of education on the plant’s uses.  Both Martin and Shirey hope to help educate the public. “The main thing we want people to know about Kratom is that it’s a natural, safe alternative to prescription painkillers. It’s helped me cope with my pain, and it’s helped me see that I CAN live a productive, pain-free life that doesn’t have to revolve around pills.” 

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