There are many types of kratom, and its leaves have compounds capable of “psychotropic (mind-altering) effects,” according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). The substance — which can be smoked, swallowed as a capsule and consumed in tea, among other forms — has effects mirroring stimulants and opioids, often depending on how much is consumed. Scientists estimate 10 to 15 million people use kratom in the United States, according to a WIRED article published Jan. 2020.
The jury’s still out on whether it’s safe or not, as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration urges the public to avoid using kratom. But a bill in the Vermont Legislature is calling for its decriminalization.
For starters, how legal is kratom in the Green Mountain State?
Nationwide, somewhat. Statewide? Not at all.
Vermont and five other states (Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Rhode Island and Wisconsin) banned the substance, according to a report from the Connecticut General Assembly from Sept. 2019.
Two alkaloids in kratom were put on Vermont’s regulated drugs list, according to an article by the Daily News Journal published in June 2019.
The federal government planned to list ingredients in kratom as Schedule 1 (drugs without “accepted medical use” or those with “the potential for abuse”) in 2016, but decided in 2018 to withdraw the proposal.
There wasn’t enough data indicating that kratom is safe, Bennett Truman, public health communication officer for Vermont’s Department of Health, said in the Daily News Journal article.
“News reports from around the country at the time indicated that kratom was aggressively marketed as a replacement for banned bath salts and that emergency rooms were seeing increased visits due to kratom,” he said in the piece.
Truman also cited “severe toxicity from Kratom… in several cases.”
Is kratom dangerous?
Reported deaths involving kratom typically included other substances, according to the federal institute. Some reported health effects noted by the institute include sweating, seizures, hallucinations, itching, nausea and dry mouth.
Some people who used the substance said they experienced addiction, according to the institute. Irritability, runny nose, insomnia, muscle aches, aggression and emotional changes are a few withdrawal symptoms reportedly related to kratom.
“I’d rather see someone take kratom than stick a needle in their arm,” Oren Levy, who runs Red Devil Kratom, a vendor in New York selling the substance, said.
Levy, who uses the name John Dee professionally, admitted he’s seen people take more of the substance than they should, but he hasn’t known anyone who died from kratom.
People use it across all ages and for a number of reasons, he said, ranging from focus to relaxation.
Levy, who used to be addicted to opioids, also considered the substance a tool in recovery and believes there’s more than one method of going through the process.
“Everybody has their own way of recovery,” he said.
Why decriminalize kratom in Vermont?
Bill H.878 is “an act relating to decriminalizing certain drugs commonly used for 11 medicinal, spiritual, religious, or entheogenic purposes.” It calls for the decriminalization of kratom, in addition to peyote, ayahuasca and psilocybin.
“People shouldn’t be criminalized for accessing these ancient treatments,” Vermont State Representative Brian Cina (P/D-Burlington) said.
Cina, who sponsored the bill, doesn’t want to see people punished for using the substance. He argued plants and fungi have powerful medicinal properties that humans have used for thousands of years.
“My belief is that substance use should be treated as a healthcare matter, not a crime,” he said.
It’s a waste of society’s resources to criminalize behaviors that stretch to the roots of humanity, he said.
Other legislators who signed onto the bill include Reps. Robin Chesnut-Tangerman, Annmarie Christensen and Zachariah Ralph.
Just because Cina’s pushing for decriminalization doesn’t mean he’s necessarily pushing for legalization. He isn’t particularly interested in the government setting up a tax-and-regulate system for kratom, because he doesn’t think medicine should be a for-profit venture.
Where does marijuana fit into Vermont’s kratom debate?
“I think that the most dangerous part of a lot of drugs is the illegality of them,” Eli Harrington, who started the Vermontijuana podcast and co-founded cannabis news outlet Heady Vermont, said.
Harrington considered decriminalization a smart step: Rather than claiming the effectiveness of kratom, people just won’t be punished criminally for using the substance.
The public seems generally more informed about possible alternatives to pharmaceutical medications — which previously went unquestioned — he said. This could partly be due to the growing familiarity with cannabis as a medicinal and therapeutic form of treatment.
However, cannabis has been more deeply embedded in society in a way that psychedelics have not been, so it probably isn’t fair to make a perfect comparison between the two, he argued.
But this bill gives Vermonters a chance to share their experiences, prompting research and investigation.
“That’s really how it starts.”