Should Mississippi lawmakers regulate or ban herbal drug kratom?

Published 4:17 pm Monday, March 2, 2020

Mississippi legislators are debating whether to either regulate or ban kratom, an herbal drug that can be used for pain relief and that is currently unregulated in most parts of the United States.

Spectators packed a large room at the state Capitol on Thursday for a hearing about the drug.

On one side of the room sat physicians, Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics agents, recovering drug addicts and others who took turns telling lawmakers that kratom is harmful and should be illegal.

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On the other side sat people wearing bright green stickers with the slogan: “Kratom saves lives.” They advocated keeping kratom legal but regulating it to ensure that it’s not mixed with controlled substances and that it’s not sold to minors.

Kratom is derived from a tree that’s native to Southeast Asia. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency says the leaves can be crushed and then smoked, put into capsules or taken with water or other liquids.

“At low doses, kratom produces stimulant effects with users reporting increased alertness, physical energy, and talkativeness. At high doses, users experience sedative effects.

Kratom consumption can lead to addiction,” says a DEA website that lists kratom among the agency’s “drugs of concern.”

The DEA says people have used kratom to relieve muscle strains and as a substitute for opium; the drug has also been used to manage withdrawal symptoms from opioids.

As of 2018, kratom was illegal in Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Tennessee, Vermont, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The group said Illinois and Louisiana ban the sale of kratom to minors.

Some confusion has existed about the Tennessee law that banned possession of a synthetic form of kratom. In 2017, the Tennessee attorney general’s office said kratom in its “natural botanical form” is not a controlled substance.

Bills filed in Mississippi this year would make kratom illegal. Tuesday is the deadline for House and Senate committees to consider those. Any bill could be rewritten to do what the American Kratom Association is requesting — to set regulations on the drug rather than making it illegal.

Senate Drug Policy Committee Chairman David Jordan, a Democrat from Greenwood, said Friday that he expects legislators to regulate kratom, but he does not know if there are enough votes to ban it.

Jordan is a retired high school chemistry teacher, and he said he worries about substances that people put into their bodies.

“We, as legislators, have got to try to protect the three million people in this state — certainly, the younger people who are trying to get a quick high,” Jordan said.

A few Mississippi cities and counties have banned kratom.

Former Mississippi House Speaker Pro Tempore Greg Snowden of Meridian, a Republican who was defeated in 2019, is now a registered lobbyist for the American Kratom Association.

One kratom supporter who spoke at the Capitol is Brandon resident Kathy Joiner, 68, who said she uses it to relieve arthritis pain, and that allows her to enjoy time with her granddaughter. Joiner said she does not like to go to doctors and she does not want to get into what she considers a “trap” of taking prescription drugs.

“I don’t need them to make this decision for me,” Joiner said of lawmakers. “This is my body, my choice.”

Dr. Randy Easterling of Vicksburg is a past president of the Mississippi State Medical Association, and he treats people who have drug addiction. He said Mississippi should not allow the sale of kratom.

“I don’t represent any group today but the one group, and that’s the thousands and thousands of patients that I’ve treated over the last 40 years,” Easterling said. “The last number of years, more and more of those have come in for kratom addiction. I’ve hospitalized patients with kratom addiction. I’ve helped them through withdrawal.”

Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter: