Signs at convenience stores and shops such as Center Market until recently had been displaying the words: Kratom Sold Here. Sunstone Organics, a company located in Pleasant Hill, Oregon founded by kratom users provides local shops with their product. Kratom (Mitragyna speciosa), a botanical substance with uses varying across cultures, up until February was being sold to help overcome opioid addiction when the FDA shut it down by classifying it as an opioid.
The FDA made this classification due to the chemical structure similarities kratom shares with other controlled opioids and the 44 reported deaths associated with kratom use, although the majority of the cases were due to the victims consuming a combination of controlled substances. Kratom is now illegal to sell and use in the U.S. The effect this legislation will have on those struggling with pain and addiction is unforeseeable.
In 2013, according to Oregon Health Authority, Oregon was the second highest ranked state for opioid prescriptions, with one in four Oregonians holding a prescription for an opioid medication, and Oregon had more opioid overdose deaths than any other drug.
Benzodiazepines — a class of drugs used to treat various mental disorders such as anxiety, insomnia, and depression — was second to opioids as Oregon’s most prescribed drug, accounting for 30 percent of prescription overdose deaths in 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The prescription abuse issue went viral following the death of 21-year-old rapper Lil Peep on Nov. 15, 2017. He overdosed on fentanyl (opioid) and Xanax (benzodiazepine), among other drugs. Since Lil Peep’s death, many artists have set an example by refraining from prescription drugs — Lil Pump and Smokepurpp both vowed to leave Xanax in 2017 while Mozzy kicked off his #KickDaKupChallenge by pouring a whole bottle of lean onto the ground.
Lil Peep helped create emo-rap, a music genre which combines hip-hop sounds and lyrical themes commonly found in emo music. Much of his music glorified the use of prescription drugs while also expressing his struggle with mental instability.
One in five American teens have abused prescription drugs, according to the DEA. America as a whole consumes 80 percent of all prescription opioids while only accounting for 5 percent of the world’s population, according to a medical report by Manchikanti and Singh. If America is devouring the planet’s manufactured painkillers and sedatives, then how is everyone else getting by? Many other cultures have been treating chronic pain and mental illness among other ailments without prescription medication.
Kratom was one of those treatments used in other cultures. In Southeast Asia, its region of origin, it was brewed as a tea drunk to fight off fatigue and increase work productivity as well as its use to treat various substance dependencies. When the Thai government imposed lucrative taxes on the opioid industry making medication very expensive, users turned to kratom to combat withdrawals. In 1943, the Thai government responded with a ban on kratom — 75 years have passed and they have yet to gain control over their opioid epidemic.
Many indigenous cultures view illness in an entirely different context. Georgann Willis, UCC associate professor of psychology, says Americans have always been quick to separate out the sick. “It comes probably from the Judeo-Christian idea that it is moral weakness that causes the person to be ill.” In comparison, a book by Stephanie Marohn featuring Malidoma Patrice Some PhD. says that many shamanic cultures believe that illness means the individual is going through a spiritual transformation which must be nurtured or else result in psychosis.
Willis also noted the difference in other countries’ mindset towards diseases like schizophrenia. “In Africa, they view schizophrenia as temporary. Here, we see it as something people don’t come back from,” she said. Marohn and Somé believe heavy dosing with anti-psychotic drugs compounds the illness and prevents soul development and growth. Willis is also wary of some American drugs: “Studies show that you have a better recovery from schizophrenia when you don’t take the drugs.” A 2017 study published in The Official Journal of the Schizophrenia Research Society reported that within a subgroup of schizophrenia patients who abstained from anti-psychotic medication for a 10-year period 30 percent had remission.
Willis personally believes: “We have become kind of lazy and decided that the pill bottle can solve everything.”
Prescription medication is a billion-dollar industry in the U.S., with spending expected to exceed $610 billion by 2021, according to a 2017 report by IQVIA. Willis sheds light on an interesting factor: “We are the only country that has advertisements for medication.”
The FDA concerned with the potential risks of self-medication urges those using kratom to seek the help of a health care professional. They also note: “There are safe and effective FDA-approved medical therapies available for the treatment of opioid addiction.” These therapies include prescriptions for buprenorphine, methadone, and naltrexone. Adapt Oregon’s Opioid Treatment Program uses a combination of such prescription medications and behavioral therapy.
The FDA is still searching for safer, non-opioid treatment options.