Kratom, the compound used to create both kratom powder and kratom capsules, is unregulated in the United States. Thus, it can be difficult for kratom users and members of the general population to learn about this compound. Is kratom a controlled substance? Is kratom a drug, a narcotic? Questions like this can be challenging to answer.
However, the short answer to these questions is no, kratom is not a controlled substance or a drug, at least by the U.S. government’s definition of these terms. According to the Department of Justice (DOJ):
“Drugs and other substances that are considered controlled substances under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) are divided into five schedules…[and] substances are placed in their respective schedules based on whether they have a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, their relative abuse potential, and likelihood of causing dependence when abused.”
Before we can answer the question, is kratom a drug, we must first better understand controlled substances, drugs, and narcotics, as well as how the U.S. government defines each of these terms.
Understanding Controlled Substances
Although excluded from the DOJ’s definition, controlled substances undergo various government-funded clinical trials before scheduling under the CSA. These trials study the potential uses and efficacy of the active ingredients of a particular substance. Clinical trials also tell us if a substance causes drug addiction or withdrawal symptoms, essential factors for scheduling.
Chances are, you’ve heard about the effects of kratom, either from someone who uses kratom or from editorials written by the kratom community. However, according to the U.S. government, kratom’s active ingredients do nothing, at least on paper. How is this possible?
Well, the U.S. government has never issued a human clinical trial for kratom compounds. Because no clinical trials study the efficacy of kratom’s active compounds, the U.S. government cannot purport any specific benefits or effects of kratom.
In addition, it’s important to point out that scheduling under the CSA requires clinical trials: regulated compounds need to be understood. If we were to look at a substance like heroin, a Schedule I opioid, we understand its active ingredients, opioid withdrawal symptoms, and the terrors of opioid addiction, primarily because of government-issued clinical trials.
But not all controlled substances are “bad” in the eyes of the law. In fact, the Schedule IV and Schedule V categories of the CSA are primarily reserved for therapeutic and medical drugs, used to treat a variety of diseases and mental illnesses. Some do not even require a medical prescription. If kratom’s active ingredients eventually fell into one of these schedules, it would allow scientists to study kratom like other government-approved compounds. However, scheduling can limit access to a substance. Many kratom advocates, such as the American Kratom Association (AKA), propose more liberal legalization efforts.
So if Not a Controlled Substance, Is Kratom a Drug?
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), who primarily regulate drugs within the United States: “Drugs are defined as articles intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease and as articles intended to affect the structure or any function of the body of man or animals.”
Under this definition, no, kratom is also not a drug. Again, for kratom to fit this definition of a drug, the government would have to issue clinical trials in order to understand how kratom affects the “structure or any function of the body.” The government has so far relied only on anecdotal evidence; that is, user reports into kratom’s effects, both positive and negative.
So if kratom is not a controlled substance or a drug, what is it?
A Dietary Supplement?
Strictly considering only government definitions, kratom could be regarded as a dietary supplement. Take a look at this import alert from 2016, when the U.S. government became aware of kratom compounds entering the United States: “Kratom is a botanical [compound] that qualifies as a dietary supplement under…the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act.”
However, the general consensus tells us that the U.S. government made this classification simply because they do not yet understand kratom. As kratom users will tell you, the compound is so much more than a dietary supplement. It deserves to be studied like any other compound. If the FDA were to take action and support kratom research, financial and scientific resources could be allocated for clinical trials that research kratom’s active ingredients. This could teach us a lot about kratom, such as:
- If kratom can be used to treat specific ailments or illnesses.
- If kratom treatment options work better than existing treatment options.
- If kratom has side effects, mild to severe.
- If kratom influences opioid addiction or other forms of drug addiction.
- If kratom influences opioid withdrawal or other withdrawal symptoms.
Unfortunately, the federal government is reluctant to research kratom. In 2018, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) attempted to ban kratom altogether. However, the agency received severe backlash from the scientific community, which said that banning the compound could “stifle research on chemicals that could be developed into alternatives to the addictive prescription opioids that kill tens of thousands of Americans each year.”
Kratom users also came forward in droves, writing letters to the DEA that advocated for kratom’s legality. The DEA halted their attempt to ban kratom. However, a handful of federal agencies still occasionally propose legislation that would make kratom harder to use.
Kratom Legality: Where Are We Now?
Is kratom legal? The answer depends on where you live. Because the federal government has been reluctant to act, kratom legality was left in the hands of the states. Six U.S. states made kratom illegal:
- Rhode Island
In addition to these six states, three U.S. counties have banned kratom:
- Franklin County, New Hampshire
- San Diego County, California
- Sarasota County, Florida
By banning kratom, these states have closed themselves off to the future of botanical medicine. They’ve also demonstrated that they do not care about the scientific community, who have advocated to keep kratom legal to be studied so that effective medicines can be developed from kratom’s active ingredients.
The Future of Kratom
It can be difficult to predict the future, especially when it comes to misunderstood compounds in the United States. We ask questions like is kratom a controlled substance or is kratom a drug because we want to better understand the direction in which kratom moves into the future.
Perhaps better questions to ask are: will kratom be scheduled under the CSA? Will it be classified as a drug? If scheduled, what will happen to kratom research? Will it be shut down or sped up?
We cannot predict the future, but we know that continuing research into kratom compounds is vital for the health and wellness of the world. This compound has the potential to change people’s lives for the better. The kratom community has had an impact before, and we can continue to have an impact and push for kratom legality nationwide.