Kratom: Naturally Controversial

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) –- 10 On Your Side investigates a naturally grown product that has been used for centuries. Kratom is gathering both support and criticism as an alternative treatment for pain and anxiety.

It grows In Southeast Asia, and is gaining popularity here in the U.S. Just last week the FDA issued a health warning on kratom.

You can get it in smoke shops and some convenience stores.

The FDA says kratom has been linked to 36 deaths, but thousands of kratom users swear by it for pain relief, better sleep and lower stress.

A local woman has a cautionary tale about what kratom did to her friend.

Treva Whitley of Norfolk has a friend we’re calling Anna. Both had been through drug addiction and recovery. One day years later, Anna had her stop at a smoke shop for a bottle that looked something like an energy shot.

“I thought it was like an energy drink or something, that’s how she portrayed it,” Whitley told us.

But for Whitley’s friend, the first visit turned into many return visits.

“When she comes back again, and wants to do it again, I’m thinking something isn’t right,” Whitley said.

Anna tells us she was trying kratom as a new way to treat her pain.

“I found out about it through a family friend. I had been withdrawing from opiates, and they told me that that would help.”

Kratom comes as a shot, as a loose powder, or in capsules. It’s legal in Virginia.

Anna began to use more and more. Whitley confronted her and told her she was acting like an addict.

We asked Anna if she felt like she was getting hooked on kratom. “Yes, they claim that it’s non-addictive, but you can get addicted to it.”

A local retailer tells a completely different story.

“We always have people that come in and say, hey what’s kratom?” said Emily Peterson of Papa Joe’s Smoke Shop in Virginia Beach.

It grows naturally in Southeast Asia – Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Peterson says depending on the origin and how the leaves are processed, kratom has 15 different strains.

“If you were looking for energy, you would use one strain, if you were looking for pain relief you’d use a different strain.”

Peterson and other supporters insist kratom is no more addictive than, say, coffee. She says she’s not heard of complaints about adverse side effects.

“None at all. We’ve never had a report of a side effect, or ‘I don’t like this’, or ‘it made me feel funny.’”

She says hundreds of customers use it for pain or anxiety instead of prescriptions.

“We have a lot of veterans that come in that get kratom for everything from their PTSD to their injuries, and it’s done wonders for them.”

We went to an expert on opioids, Dr. Ben Fickenscher of Chesapeake Regional Medical Center, to see if he thought kratom could be addictive. He wants to see more research.

“As far as we know it is addictive, but perhaps less so than opiates are,” Fickenscher said. “We know it has some withdrawal symptoms but perhaps those are milder than with opiates.”

Fickenscher says kratom may prove to be another way to treat pain, but for now there are too many unknowns.

“What it does, and what are the downsides, what are the potential medical upsides, right now we really don’t know.”

Anna says she regrets using kratom and ended up trading one addiction for another.

“I went into something that was supposed to be non-addictive to get me off something else and then just got addicted to something else. It was easier to buy, easier to get my hands on.”

It’s definitely easy to use, with people mixing it with common foods.

“The powders can be mixed with pretty much anything, “Peterson said. “Yogurt, honey, peanut butter, and some people have mixed it in their ice cream.”

The DEA wanted to restrict kratom last year as a drug with high potential for abuse. But then the agency changed its mind, withdrew the order and gave the public two months to comment.

More than 23,000 people responded — with the vast majority opposing federal restrictions on kratom.

The FDA now says the data is clear that the danger from kratom is increasing, but the American Kratom Association calls the FDA’s science incomplete and discredited. The organization has filed a formal complaint to get the FDA warning overturned.