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Kratom - All You Need to Know

Updated on July 19, 2017
KRATOM

MEET KRATOM

Kratom is the popular name for the tree officially known as Mitragyna speciosa Korthals. The origin of the word Kratom is widely accepted to be in the Thai language but the exact etymology has been lost. It is also commonly known as ketum among the Malay-speaking indigenous population of the Malaysian peninsula and Borneo.

The Mitragyna name was coined by Pieter Willem Korthals, a Dutch botanist working for the East India Company. He saw that the leaves of the tree were pointed at the tip, resembling the headgear worn by bishops called miters.

BOTANY

M. speciosa is hardwood native to the tropical and sub-tropical botanical regions and rainforests of Southeast Asia, in Indochina, on the island of Borneo and can even be found as far away as New Guinea. It is most commonly seen in the countries of Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar (formerly Burma), Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

Of these regions, the highest concentration of M. speciosa trees is in the central and southern forests of Thailand, and in the northern jungles of peninsular Malaysia. There is an African species of Mitragyna which grows naturally in swamps which is sometimes classed under the Hallea genus.

The genus Mitragyna belongs to the family of coffee trees (Rubiaceae) and is a tropical evergreen. However, it is one of the rare plants that can exhibit both evergreen and deciduous properties, depending on the nature of the environment.

The tropical climate in the regions where it grows naturally can roughly be divided into the hot, dry and cool, wet seasons. Leaves are shed throughout the year but environmental factors also play a part. The dry seasonal favors shedding and new growth is more common to the cooler, wetter periods.

When grown outside its native region, leaf fall is accelerated with colder temperatures and is particularly marked around the 4 degrees Celsius mark.

Can I Grow My Own Kratom?

Growing Kratom as a plant in the home is possible but not an easy task. They may be propagated from cuttings but require a lot of care and maintenance, particularly in the very early stages.

Once they have grown, they would have to be trimmed regularly because they are genetically large trees.

It is best to simulate the natural environment of the Mitragyna speciosa tree to obtain the best chances of success – a hot, humid environment, wet and slightly acidic soil and as little exposure to low temperatures as possible. Frost can be fatal to the Kratom tree.

Fertilization requirements of the Kratom are generally low and only needed when they are grown.

If you live in a tropical environment, you can grow them outside. If you live in a region where the temperature fluctuates throughout the year, you will have to move your Kratom plant indoors when the temperature starts to fall. Remember that it will be extremely difficult to move it once it grows large – trim it if you will need to keep it mobile for seasonal changes.

APPEARANCE

M. speciosa trees can grow to massive heights of as tall as 100 feet (30 meters) in the best warm and wet climates that they like. However, they are more typically restricted to about 50 feet (15 meters). Stunted trees can be as short as 12 feet (4 meters).

Their trunks can have a circumference as large as 15 feet (just under 5 meters), meaning they are 5 feet wide. Kratom trees produce a fine timber and have been used for building for many years.

Plants of the Mitragyna genus display globe-shaped flowering heads which are yellow in color. Each of these heads can bear up to 120 florets. These flower seeds are small and flat.

The stem of each leaf is erect and branches off the main vein. The leaves are generally evergreen and have a deep glossy green hue. However, light green leaves are also not unusual.

Each leaf is oval in shape with a pointed, tear-drop outline towards the tip. Each leaf weighs between half a gram and two grams.

Veins branch off symmetrically away from the central vein which grows straight from stem to tip. Each leaf can have anywhere between 12 and 17 pairs of such veins.

The central veins can be green, light red or dark red in color. White veins also occur but more rarely.

HISTORY

The first recorded mention of Kratom in Western literature, and perhaps any literature, is by the Dutch botanist who gave it its Western name. Pieter Willem Korthals worked for the Dutch East India Company as a botanist in the 19th century.

When Korthals described the plant, Kratom had already been used in Thailand as a traditional remedy for centuries and maybe even millennia. There is no local written record of its use that can be found but its use was a common and unremarkable fact.

It is an unfortunate coincidence that a written record of Kratom use by the indigenous populations of every region it traditionally grows either does not exist or cannot be located. However, it is commonly accepted that it was used as a ‘pick me up’ by the local populace who toiled at physical labor for extended periods every day.

At around the same time as Korthals gave Kratom its Western name, a man by the name of Low in Malaysia was describing its use by the underprivileged class as an opium substitute. Low’s records dates back to 1836.

The same observation was made by E.M. Holmes in 1895 in Thailand. Whereas Holmes and Low had spoken of Kratom’s use in that context, H. Ridley’s text of 1897 focused on how the substance was being used to get opium addicts off their reliance on that drug.

A decade later, in 1907, L. Wray wrote a treatise describing the various ways in which the indigenous population used the plant. He mentioned that different types of Kratom extracts were chewed, drunk as a concoction or smoked.

Wray was interested exploring the scientific uses of Kratom and similar plants. He sent samples of two species - Mitragyna speciosa and its relative Mitragyna parvifolia - to the University of Edinburgh. A scientist by the name of Hoover worked on the Mitragyna speciose sample and even managed to isolate the Mitragynine alkaloid in Kratom.

However, Hoover fell short in that he did not give his discover a name. That honor went in 1921 to another scientist by the name of Fray. Fray named the Mitragyna speciosa alkaloid Mitragynine and also worked on Mitragyna parvifolia to obtain the alkaloid Mitraversine.

Further studies on the scientific properties of Kratom were conducted by I. H. Burkill who published his conclusions in 1930. Burkill had focused his inquiry on the use of Kratom in traditional medicine.

This chain of findings led to more interest in the plant, which was the springboard for more research. By 1940, three more alkaloids had been isolated and identified.

Ironically, while Western scientists were eagerly exploring the potential that this substance seemed to possess, in its homeland, Kratom was becoming a thorn in the side of the government.

Due to its use as an opium substitute, the Thai government saw that Kratom was eating into their coffers which profited from the taxes on opium. Their solution was to instigate a complete ban on the plant.

The Kratom Act 2486 was passed in Thailand on August 3, 1943. The draconian aw not only punished the possession and sale of Kratom by individuals, it virtually outlawed the existence of the Mitragyna speciosa tree itself, mandating they be cut down wherever they could be found.

Fortunately, most of the trees were located in remote areas and it was impossible for the government to feasibly carry out its plan. The Kratom tree survived and an ecological disaster was averted.

CHEMISTRY

Over the course of over a century of research, more than forty compounds have been isolated and identified in Mitragyna speciosa leaves. That being said, the true nature of the pharmacology of Kratom is still not fully understood.

Of the forty compounds, there are about active 25 alkaloids. It has been found that Mitragyna Speciosa trees that grow in tropical climates and in slightly acidic soil produce the highest alkaloid content by volume. Age also plays a part – more alkaloids are obtained from older trees.

The key psychoactive compounds have been identified as the opiate-like alkaloids 7-hydroxymitragynine (7-HMG), mitragynine, mitraphylline. None of these three substances are found anywhere else in nature.

Mitragynine, which has a molecular structure resembling that of voacangine and yohimbine, accounts for two-thirds of the alkaloid extractions by volume from Kratom leaves; 7-HMG makes up just one-fiftieth (2%).

Here are some of the other alkaloids that have been identified in Mitragyna speciosa:

  • Ajmalicine;
  • Corynantheidine;
  • Mitraphylline;
  • Mitragynine pseudoindoxyl; and
  • Rhynchophylline

Another of the active substances found in the leaves of Mitragyna speciosa is raubasine.

There is considerable debate on whether the color of the leaves and veins has an impact on, or is an indicator of, the relative concentrations of the chemicals and alkaloids present.

For the most part, the color of the various parts of any tree or plant are a consequence of genetics and environmental factors. The red, white and green veins found in Mitragyna speciosa leaves work the same way. In fact, the colors of the veins of the same leaves change over time as it ages.

No specific research has been conducted to discover whether the change in the color is a consequence of, or if it causes, a change in the chemical composition of the leaf. It may be possible that the two phenomena are interrelated and that the presence of one can predict a corresponding change in the other.

Mitragyna javanica tends to be very similar to its speciosa cousin and is commonly used as a filler or substitute by unscrupulous distributors. Neither javanica nor other Mitragyna species like tubulosa, parvifolia and stipulosa have an alkaloid content even nearly as potent as that found in M. speciosa.

Kratom and Detection

Some of the alkaloids present in Kratom bind to opiate receptors which causes some to suspect that they can be detected by tests for opiates. However, even though their behavior might be similar, their molecular structure is not.

Therefore, Kratom detection by traditional tests for opiates is not possible.

CLINICAL RESEARCH

For all the research done into Mitragyna speciosa and the nature of the chemicals and alkaloids its leaves contain, inordinately scarce research has been conducted into its medical uses.

In 2013, the United States D.E.A. (Drug Enforcement Administration) released a statement stating that it did not believe that Kratom had a place in the medical sphere.

At that time, some research had been conducted on how Kratom extracts interacted with chemicals and tissue in individual cells and in animals but no clinical trials had been initiated.

There is no data available on whether it is currently being tracked in trials although it is believed a number of discrete entities are conducting studies with animals that are showing promise. This is particularly the case with 7-HMG.

Data on how often it is used worldwide are lacking as it is not detected by typical drug screening tests.

LEGAL HISTORY AND CURRENT STATUS

Kratom has a long history of use for various purposes by the people of Southeast Asia, particularly the denizen of Thailand. Within the past few years, however, its enviable place in the heritage of these nations has suffered a number of serious legal challenges.

Across the world, an increasing number of countries are either tightening controls over the import, growing, sale and use of Kratom, or banning it outright. Here is a layperson’s guide to Kratom-related laws across the globe.

Due to the constant shift in legal positions, we strongly recommend that you make personal inquiries to ascertain the latest information before engaging in behavior that might be considered illegal in your state or country.

NORTH AMERICA

Canada

Kratom is not legal for human or animal consumption in Canada and all Kratom sold in Canada must be labelled as such.

There are companies that sell Kratom in the country but their products are marketed as incense or ingredients for aromatherapy and the manufacture of soap.

United States

The law in the United States with respect to Kratom varies from state to state – the following states have banned it outright:

  • Alabama
  • Arkansas
  • Indiana
  • Tennessee
  • Vermont
  • Wisconsin

Federally, the U.S. FDA (Food and Drug Administration) had actively been pursuing shipments of Kratom since 2014 because it does not appear in the list of products Generally Recognized as Safe. The U.S. Army has officially prohibited its members from using Kratom.

In August 2016, the U.S. DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) made public its intent to place two psychoactive substances found exclusively in Mitragyna speciosa – mitragynine and 7-HMG – on the Schedule I list of drugs. If successful, this would have categorized Kratom as a drug similar to marijuana.

The DEA cited public safety and the link between calls to poison centers as well as the alleged involved of Kratom in several deaths in the preceding years as the reason behind the move. (It should be noted that the use of Kratom itself has never been directly linked to any fatalities anywhere in the world).

This move was reversed by the agency in October 2016 and they invited public comment up till 1 December 2016.

ASIA

The ASEAN region

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has declared Kratom a banned product. Kratom cannot be used as an ingredient in any traditional health supplement or traditional medicine manufactured, distributed or sold in the region.

Apart from this, several nations have their own particular laws to deal with the perceived threat from Kratom use.

Malaysia

Malaysia takes one of the most hardline approaches to Kratom use in the world. Mitragynine has been officially declared a poison under the Malaysian Poisons Act of 1952 since 2003. This law was expanded to include all extracts from Mitragyna speciosa leaves in August 2004.

Individuals found contravening that law are liable to face a fine of up to US$3,150 and up to four years in jail.

A 2004 raid saw the seizure of almost a quarter of a ton of Kratom leaves and 800 liters of a local concoction of ‘Kratom Water’.

March 2006 saw a push to upgrade the legal status of Kratom from a poison to that of a dangerous drug; it was approved the following year. This has made individuals found contravening the law liable for heavier penalties. Another significant difference is that the law now applies to individual consumers as well as distributors.

Myanmar (formerly Burma)

It has been illegal to grow or sell Kratom in Myanmar since January 1993. The government specified Mitragyna speciosa as a controlled narcotic drug under federal law.

Singapore

The island nation is known for its tough stance on drugs and Kratom has run afoul here, too. Categorized under 'New Psychoactive Substances', Kratom has been banned for not having any industrial or medical use and for mimicking harmful drugs.

The Singapore CNB (Central Narcotics Bureau) made thirty NPS seizures between May 2013 and February 2014. This prompted an elevation of such Fifth Schedule Drugs to Class A controlled drugs.

Individuals who are convicted of trafficking a Class A controlled drug in Singapore can be sentenced to five years of jail. Singapore also practices corporal punishment - traffickers will also be given five strokes of the cane.

The use of NPS is also an offence - offenders face up to ten years in jail or a fine of up to $20,000, or both.

Thailand

As we alluded to earlier, the legal status of Kratom has not been completely challenged even in Thailand. The Kratom Act 2486 of 1943 was a major setback for the use and the reputation of the tree.

The origins of that particularly infamous chapter were firmly entrenched not in any concern or public health and welfare but in the selfish economic policies of the Thai government of the time. It saw the use of Kratom as a substitute for opium as a direct threat to its income from taxes on the latter.

Kratom Act 2486 literally banned the existence of the tree itself. Fortunately, their attempts at widespread destruction were not as successful as Kratom had a head start of a few millennia. Although that episode has been relegated to the annals of history as a misguided attempt at scapegoating, Kratom use continues to suffer unfair discrimination in Thailand today.

Since 1979, Kratom and marijuana have both been on the Thai Category V list of substances. This makes the possession of Kratom leaves illegal; offenders face lengthy prison sentences and even the death penalty in certain cases. However, the use of the death penalty is extremely rare.

Kratom is severely underrepresented in crime statistics in Thailand – less than 2% of the arrests for narcotics in the country were related to Kratom.

A crackdown in 2001 yielded over one ton of Kratom in various forms. The majority of the illegal market is located in Thailand’s terrorism-plagued south where the Muslim minority is fighting for a separate nation.

There have been several attempts to legalize Kratom use over the past decade or so. Three pushes – in 2004, 2009 and 2013 – have all failed to reverse the government’s heavy-handed approach.

AUSTRALASIA

Australia

Australia is one of the increasing number of Western nations who have imposed a ban on Kratom.

The process began in 2003 when special legislative committees were convened to discuss the expansion of the registry of controlled substances. One of the substances under review was the mitragynine alkaloid.

The recommendations were approved into law in 2005, making the use, sale and distribution of Kratom a criminal offence.

New Zealand

New Zealand followed the neighbor, Australia’s lead and banned the growing, selling, distribution and consumption of Mitragyna Speciosa. It is classified under Schedule 1 of the 2009 New Zealand Medicines Amendment Regulations Act.

This means that individuals can still obtain it with a valid medical prescription but it is otherwise illegal and punishable under criminal law.

EUROPE

Most countries in Europe have taken a measured approach to Kratom.

Whereas the majority of them do not have any legislation targeting Mitragyna speciosa or its specific alkaloids, some have designated Kratom a controlled substance:

  • Denmark – changed status to controlled substance in 2009
  • Finland – importation is illegal; you need a valid prescription too purchase for consumption
  • Germany – classified as unlicensed medicine; attempted import can be prosecuted by law
  • Hungary – permitted as an incense but growing, selling and consumption are prohibited
  • Israel – a controlled substance but both sale and consumption are possible with a license
  • Poland – controlled substance but available through a license or a prescription
  • Sweden – recently changed to classify Mitragyna speciosa as a controlled substance

Other European nations have taken a more hardline approach:

  • Lithuania - prosecutes both distribution and consumption of Mitragyna speciosa
  • Romania - made Mitragyna speciosa an outright illegal substance in 2010

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