The Drug Enforcement Administration’s Schedule I drug list at some point is set to grow by one.
Kratom, made from leaves of a tree native to Southeast Asia and ingested typically for pain relief or as a stimulant, was to join the list as early as Friday.
Its addition to the list, though, will come at a later date. An emergency scheduling order was issued in August by the DEA, which has faced pushback from elected officials and others against the quick Schedule I action, seeking more time for public comment and a regular review process. Supporters contend kratom serves as a safe alternative to prescription opioids.
Drugs already on the Schedule I list of “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” as determined by the DEA: heroin, LSD, marijuana, ecstasy, methaqualone and peyote.
DEA Special Agent Jodie Underwood was quoted in The Seattle Times earlier this week saying kratom and its chemical compounds “pose an imminent hazard to the public safety.”
On Friday, a spokesman for the DEA told U.S. News and World Report that the scheduling would be delayed. The DEA still is preparing a final order that calls for a temporary ban of a few years with an outline of criminal sanctions.
Concerns have grown nationwide over kratom use being reported to U.S. poison control centers.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says kratom is known for its “stimulant effects and as an opioid substitute, brewed into tea, chewed, smoked or ingested in capsules.” The CDC also notes published case reports associate kratom exposure with psychosis, seizures and deaths.
The drug scheduling designation is important because it will make kratom illegal to possess or sell. It also puts it in a more restrictive class than prescription drugs such as oxycodone and fentanyl, which are on Schedule II, the list of drugs with “high potential for abuse.” Drugs on Schedule I can incur the strictest federal penalties for those caught in possession of a drug on the list.
Drug scheduling gained renewed focus nationally this summer when the DEA decided to keep marijuana on its most dangerous list. Penalties associated with that list are in conflict with states where cannabis is legal, including Washington.
The Seattle Times reported this week that a bipartisan group of U.S. House members sent a letter to the DEA arguing against a swift addition of kratom to the Schedule I list. Washington Reps. Adam Smith and Denny Heck were among those to sign the letter.
Late Thursday, Forbes reported online that Senator Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, had petitioned the DEA to postpone its plan.
With kratom on the DEA’s radar, those who use it stocked up Thursday in Tacoma.
At Mary Jane’s House of Glass, two or three customers at a time were in the Sixth Avenue store to buy the drug.
Manager Will Steele said the store has been selling kratom for four years. Before the recent rush, he was selling it to about 30 customers a day.
On Thursday, kratom accounted for 78 percent of his business.
“My customers come in and take this for pain relief,” Steele said. “They take it for a little pick-me-up. They take it for anxiety.”
More than a dozen containers of different varieties of the powdered leaves sat on shelves Thursday at the store. Prices averaged about $1 per gram.
Many of Steele’s customers are trying to get off of or looking for an alternative to opioids.
Trisha Dombrosky, 28, of Tacoma was visiting Mary Jane’s on Thursday with daughter Charlotte, 3, to buy kratom before the potential ban.
“Kratom has completely changed my life,” Dombrosky said. “It gave me so much hope because I had been in so much pain for so long.”
Dombrosky has been using the alternative drug since March to control pain from reproductive diseases and a January car accident.
Dombrosky had kicked prescription opioid use after becoming addicted as a teenager.
“I didn’t realize it at the time but I was very much addicted,” she said.
She didn’t want to go back to opioids and she didn’t like the mood-altering effects they have on her.
“It doesn’t alter my state of mind,” Dombrosky said of kratom.
It took her a while to find the right dose at first. Taking too much led to vomiting, she said.
“I figured out I just needed to take a couple of grams in the morning,” she said.
After she started using it, she dropped her opioids.
“Completely,” she said. “And completely cold turkey.”
Now, she said, it helps her get through physical therapy, allows her to jog and gives her more energy.
Steele said some customers use it as a recreational drug, though users say the mood-altering effects pale compared with alcohol and marijuana. He compared it to strong coffee.
“You can take it and go to work and not be obviously high,” he said.
Another attraction, Steele said, is the drug does not show up on drug tests.
“The other reason is that cannabis has a really bad stigma behind it,” he said.
Angie Stanfield of Tacoma was also in Mary Jane’s on Thursday afternoon to stock up on kratom before the potential ban. She’s been using it since June.
Stanfield uses it to control anxiety and get an energy boost.
“I thought it was really great,” she said. “It’s pretty amazing stuff.”
Now, her husband uses it to control pain.
Any delay in the DEA’s drug scheduling doesn’t mean kratom won’t be added, only that the final date for a public listing hasn’t been set. Questions remain over how medical research would proceed under the ban, or whether the temporary listing would become permanent.
DEA spokesman Russell Baer told The Washington Post: “It's not a matter of if. It's simply a matter of when, in terms of DEA publishing the final order to temporarily schedule kratom. Our administrator (Chuck Rosenberg) has determined that kratom represents an imminent hazard to public safety. So I have a sense that publishing our final order will be sooner as opposed to later.”
Back in Tacoma, kratom users such as Dombrosky say the alternative medicine has allowed them to live fuller lives without the side effects of opioids.
“I am able to be in the moment and not get bogged down by pain,” she said.
The News Tribune’s Debbie Cockrell, The Seattle Times and The Washington Post contributed to this report.