San Diego

Experts Urge Caution With Natural, Legal Drug Kratom

Users say Kratom is a stimulant that in small doses gives them energy and boosts their mood.

Users and health professionals are debating over the benefits and risks of Kratom, a natural substance, from the leaves of a tree that grows in Thailand.

The legal drug can be bought online and in stores. Users say Kratom is a stimulant that in small doses gives them energy and boosts their mood but if you take more of it, the drug has the opposite effect, working like a sedative or narcotic.

Jane Babin, a Kratom user said the natural drug is harmless, and helps with her joint pain.

"You know, my joints ache sometimes,” she said. “(I’m) probably getting arthritis, and you know, it works well, for me."

Babin is a lawyer and biochemist. She said she buys Kratom legally on the internet, from sellers who import it from Southeast Asia.

"The euphoria or addiction potential is overstated,” she said. “It doesn't really have that effect on me at all."

NBC 7 Investigates found numerous overdoses associated with Kratom, causing sickness and death. According to the state Poison Control System, since 2015, there have been more than 100 calls for help to poison centers in California, 11 of those calls were reported in San Diego County.

In the last four years, according to the San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office, 11 deaths have been linked to Kratom in the county with four of those deaths happening this year. According to the medical examiner reports, all but one of those fatalities involved other addictive drugs as well.

"People say it's natural, so it has to be safe,” Dr. Clark Smith, a drug and addiction expert said. “You know what? Arsenic is natural."

Smith said it's foolish to assume Kratom is safe and no one should use it until clinical studies prove it's not dangerous.

"Who knows, maybe somebody uses it casually for a couple of years, and they get kidney failure, or they go blind," he said.

Last year, the DEA labeled Kratom as a dangerous substance, with no medical benefit. The agency planned to classify it as a schedule one controlled substance, making it illegal, everywhere. As news of those plans was made public, Babin and thousands of Kratom users flooded the agency with phone calls and petitions. They argued drug addicts use Kratom to help soothe withdrawal pains.

"It's a better solution than prescription opioids for a lot of people,” Babin said.

In the end, 51 members of Congress and nine U.S. Senators supported that effort, and the DEA backed off.

"So, there's really no control over it," Smith said.

While not federally regulated, states and cities can, and have, passed laws related to Kratom, including the city of San Diego, which outlawed it last year.

Adults can legally buy Kratom in 17 of San Diego County's 18 cities. Smoke shops sell bags and capsules of the natural substance.

Babin said responsible adults should have access to Kratom, but others disagree.

“The fact that there are deaths associated with it should give anyone a healthy fear of it," Smith said.

"You know, when we have 91 people dying every day from opioid overdoses, the last thing we need is to have another opioid out there,” Amy Roderick with the DEA said. “Something else that somebody could really use for the first time, and become addicted to."

In the city of San Diego, seven people have been charged with illegal possession for the sale of Kratom. If convicted, defendants face six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

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