Kratom (Mitragyna speciosa) is a tree native to Southeast Asia. Its leaves have been used for centuries as an herbal remedy to relieve pain and anxiety and to boost energy. The alkaloids contained in kratom leaves are said to stimulate at low doses and sedate at higher doses. Kratom has been widely promoted as effective at lessening the discomfort of withdrawal from opiates or heroin.
Addiction is defined as a craving or compulsion for a particular substance, thing, or activity. Drug or alcohol addiction causes an actual rewiring of the brain which demands a steady input of the substance. Over time a tolerance develops, so more of the substance is required to achieve the desired effect. When use of the substance is stopped, withdrawal symptoms, sometimes severe, occur.
Kratom proponents deny that it is addictive. They also state that when kratom use is discontinued it does not lead to withdrawal symptoms, unless it has been grossly overused. However, few dispute that kratom can be habit forming, and may cause a psychological dependence, if not a physical craving.
The Mayo Clinic holds a different view on kratom use, citing research suggesting the herb can lead to addiction and withdrawal. One six-month study found users developed cravings and experienced withdrawal symptoms when kratom was discontinued. According to the Mayo Clinic, “as with pain medications and recreational drugs, it is possible to overdose on kratom.”
Is Kratom a regulated substance?
Classified as an herbal or dietary supplement, kratom is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Unless it is proven unsafe or illegally marketed as treatment for a medical condition, the FDA does not have jurisdiction over it. Although the FDA does not currently restrict the sale of kratom in the U.S., it did ban the import of the substance in 2014.
The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) cites kratom as a “drug of concern” but has not yet labeled it as a controlled substance.
Both agencies have issued concerns about the safety of kratom, fearing the potential for addiction and withdrawal effects. While it is legal in many U.S. states, several states and individual cities have banned kratom. In 2017 the DEA announced its plan to designate kratom as a Schedule 1 drug, rather than as an herbal supplement, which would have necessitated it be federally regulated. But due to a public outcry, the DEA reversed that decision. However, both the DEA and the FDA continue to voice concerns over kratom use.
It’s difficult to definitively state whether kratom is addictive. Over time, use of kratom may cause cravings, which could be classified as addiction. It remains unclear as to whether kratom rewires receptors in the brain as happens with opioids and other addictive substances.