In the lush tropics of Southeast Asia grows a plant that has both intrigued and polarized the United States: kratom. Known scientifically as Mitragyna speciosa, kratom’s leaves contain compounds that can mimic the effects of opioids, offering pain relief, euphoria, and, in some cases, a contentious path away from addiction. However, the kratom market in Florida, a microcosm of the national scene, is a wild west of sorts, unregulated and burgeoning, with a market value estimated at roughly $1.5 billion (source).
A comprehensive investigation by the Tampa Bay Times has shed light on the darker facets of this unregulated market. Over the last decade, more than 580 Floridians have died with kratom detected in their systems. While many of these cases involved other substances, 46 fatalities were attributed solely to kratom (source). This statistic is alarming, especially when considering the lack of regulation around the sale and labeling of kratom products. Companies often market their kratom as “powerful” or “most potent” without providing dosing instructions, ingredient lists, or potency levels, essentially leaving consumers to navigate safety on their own.
One of the more harrowing findings from the investigation is the potency of some kratom products available on the market. Certain packets of kratom pills were found to be so concentrated that experts likened them to “legal morphine.” This level of potency, especially in products designed to be more concentrated than kratom’s traditional, fresh leaf form, has contributed to overdoses. In one tragic incident, a 39-year-old mother was found deceased next to her baby, with a toxic level of kratom’s main ingredient in her bloodstream (source).
The investigation also highlighted the risks of combining kratom with other substances. Ninety percent of those who died with kratom in their system had also consumed other potentially harmful substances, including medications for anxiety or depression. Unlike prescription and over-the-counter drug makers, who are required to warn consumers about the dangers of mixing their products with others, the kratom industry is under no such obligation.
Amidst these concerns, kratom has been marketed as a safer alternative to opioids, promising a way out for those trapped in the cycle of addiction. Yet, the majority of kratom-only overdose victims had a history of drug misuse, often involving opioids like oxycodone or heroin. This narrative was tragically underscored by the story of a Port Richey man who, after becoming addicted to prescription painkillers following a car accident, overdosed on kratom in an attempt to wean himself off harder drugs.
In response to the Tampa Bay Times‘ investigation, the American Kratom Association (AKA), a non-profit advocacy and lobbying group, penned an open letter. The AKA has been at the forefront of pushing for regulation and standards within the kratom industry, advocating for the Kratom Consumer Protection Act, which seeks to regulate the production, distribution, sale, and possession of kratom products (source).
The debate over kratom is complex, touching on issues of public health, regulation, and the opioid crisis. While proponents see it as a lifeline for those struggling with addiction, detractors warn of its potential dangers and the lack of oversight in its sale. As the conversation continues, the need for comprehensive research and regulation becomes ever more apparent, to ensure that kratom can be used safely and effectively by those who choose to turn to it.