The DEA is about to make me a criminal… and stop research into one of the best hopes for the American opiate crisis

“If I’d known it was harmless, I’d have killed it myself!”
Phillip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly
Kratom. (Not pictured: An “imminent threat to public safety.”)

The U.S. federal government is within weeks of making exactly the same mistake that it made with marijuana 50 years ago by criminalizing kratom through an “emergency” temporary scheduling order. If the DEA’s recommendation of August 31, 2016 is followed, possession of a plant which has brought significant benefit to me and so many other Americans will be made federally equivalent to that of heroin, LSD, and ecstasy.

“[T]he criminal law is too harsh a tool to apply to personal possession even in the effort to discourage use. It implies an overwhelming indictment of the behavior which we believe is not appropriate. The actual and potential harm of use of the drug is not great enough to justify intrusion by the criminal law into private behavior, a step which our society takes only with the greatest reluctance.”
— Report of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse (1972)

The National Commission on Marihuana [sic] and Drug Abuse was appointed by President Richard Nixon after the Controlled Substances Act was passed by Congress in 1970 to make recommendations as to the future of marijuana in the United States. At the time of the CSA, cannabis had been temporarily designated a Schedule I substance for two years with the understanding that this could change depending on the Commission’s report. (Schedule I controlled substances are those deemed to have no medical value, combined with a high potential for abuse.)

The Commission (see quote above) recommended not only that marijuana not be treated as a controlled substance, but that it be decriminalized entirely. Nixon, who personally abhorred marijuana, ignored this recommendation and the temporary scheduling became permanent.

“You know, it’s a funny thing, every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish. What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob? What is the matter with them? I suppose it’s because most of them are psychiatrists.” — an actual thing that the actual President of the United States who actually criminalized marijuana actually said

We now know that most of what we thought we knew about marijuana in 1970 was wrong. While it remains a Schedule I substance for federal purposes, nearly half of the states have decriminalized it and nearly as many have or are about to recognize its medicinal value. Meanwhile, countries throughout the Western Hemisphere have been wracked with crime and violence surrounding marijuana’s illegal growth, transport, and sale, generations of young people (especially young black and Latino men) have done serious prison time, and American medical science has been almost entirely unable to study its effects (positive and negative) on the human mind and body.

Mitragyna speciosa is a leafy tree found throughout Southeast Asia which is in the same family as coffee. It has far less potential for addiction than alcohol or nicotine, is extremely difficult to critically overdose in humans, and has in and of itself killed exactly as many people as marijuana. (Spoiler: Zero. Zero people have ever died from marijuana overdose.) It is not an opioid.

I legally purchase and regularly consume kratom powder in moderate amounts. I am drinking a warm mug of ginger tea and honey with a teaspoon of red vein Thai as I write this. (See photo above.) Kratom’s taste and texture is comparable to matcha or other ground green teas. I’ve come to enjoy the leafy taste, and regularly mix it into hot tea, coffee, and smoothies. I plan to continue to do so for as long as it is legal to consume. (To be clear, I can’t speak to any of the liquids, pills, or extracts on the market, but it is my understanding that the liquids and other extracts in particular should be avoided.)

As of today, August 31st, 2016, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has formally announced its intent to do exactly what it did to cannabis: temporarily classify kratom on an emergency basis as a Schedule 1 controlled substance for two years. This would leave it as an illegal drug with “no medical use,” seen by the U.S. government as having the same level of alleged harm and potential for abuse as heroin and cocaine.

I actually laughed, just once, when I heard the news yesterday.

And it would almost be funny, if I didn’t know that people are going to die.

Deciding that a substance has no medical value before it has had a chance for proper scientific study is an outrageous ouroborous of idiocy: the substance has no medical value because it hasn’t been studied because it has no medical value because it hasn’t been studied because it has no medical value because it hasn’t been studied because it has no medical value, ad infinitum ridiculo.

Western scientific research on kratom has been limited, but promising. A few scientists in this country — including some funded by the federal government whom the DEA must not have consulted in reaching its “no medical use” conclusion — have been looking into the potential use of kratom as a far healthier alternative to existing opiate addiction treatments such as suboxone and methadone. (The federal government as already approved three kratom-related patents for this purpose.) And anecdotal personal evidence of its efficacy for chronic pain is abundant online anywhere that kratom is discussed.

Even in the face of all of this — including, again, federally-funded research recommending further study — the DEA has had the audacity to declare that the conversation around kratom is over and that users should expect to be subject to arrest.

This kind of lawmaking by emergency was unacceptable when Nixon did it to cannabis, and it should not be allowed to stand now.

I am a lawyer, not a scientist, and I have no authority to speak on the science of kratom. But I know what it has done for my life, and I have seen what it has done for hundreds of others.

That is why I am compelled to publicly “come out” today as a regular kratom consumer.

I am doing this both in defense of a plant which I have come to believe may yet hold enormous unexplored potential for humanity, and in recognition that I have the luxury of being able to do so from a position of enormous privilege. I am successfully self-employed, and have already established myself in a professional career which will not be much affected by admitting that my life has been significantly improved by a plant which might be illegal in the United States by the time you are reading this.

Like most kratom users, I do not consume this plant for fun, or a “high.” (There is much more fun, and far better highs, to be had in other more readily-available substances — licit and otherwise.)

While it has many possible applications, I have simply found kratom to be a superior alternative to anything which I might otherwise be prescribed for my once-crippling social anxiety.

Social anxiety has dominated my personal and professional lives for as long as I can remember. It is not “shyness,” or necessarily even an indicator of introversion. It is a very specific reaction to social stimuli. For me, it manifests — reliably, almost every time — either in loud, crowded rooms or at any time in which people (especially strangers) are raising their voices in my direction. My heart races, my voice doesn’t work, and my flight instincts take over. Even after ten years as a practicing attorney, it can still strike anytime there are other people around, for nearly any reason.

It’s the unpredictability of it all that gets me more than anything.

I learned in college that a couple of drinks went a long way toward helping me to feel more like myself in situations that might otherwise trigger anxiety. And while I continue to enjoy drinking socially, I spent the next fifteen years trying to find something which would help me to have that feeling of comfort and openness without the familiar impairment or potential for abuse. (And, while I recognize that this is an arbitrary line in the sand, I was intent on overcoming anxiety without prescription pharmaceuticals. I have just never trusted them to give me that freedom without taking from the things that I like best about myself.)

My most significant breakthrough came after law school after several months of counseling and cognitive behavioral therapy at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety & Related Disorders. I can’t thank CARD’s team enough for what I learned there, and the permanent change in my perspective that I was left with.

Even with the progress I made with CBT at CARD, they joined my doctor in recommending prescription medication to control my anxiety.

I declined. I have always liked myself too much the way that I am to risk forming a chemical dependency on something which might change my personality.

I spent the next eleven years after my formal diagnosis dedicating myself to a legal career, and the balance of that time building the solo law practice (now a three-attorney firm) which I still run today. On paper, my day-to-day sounds like a social anxiety nightmare: regular court appearances, lengthy client meetings, managing staff and attorneys, and spending far more time than I would prefer on the phone with strangers. And it can be, even for as much as I have learned to manage and mitigate the worst of it while getting results for hundreds of clients.

I experienced a day of unusually high anxiety near the end of last summer which felt like such a defeat that it almost had me reconsidering the possibility of asking my doctor about a prescription. I discovered kratom during some desperate late-night Googling and started reading up on it from as many different sources and viewpoints as I could find. My first order arrived a few days later, and it has been a regular part of my life since then.

Kratom is not a “cure” or a “treatment” for my anxiety. It does not make me feel like a different person. It simply puts me in the right state of mind to work through my anxiety without impairing my mind, body, or judgment.

For the first time in my life, I have been able to start conversations with strangers in public. I have not only sincerely enjoyed going to large parties, but found myself not wanting to leave. I have made sustained, steady eye contact with other humans while also effortlessly keeping a conversation going with them. It’s not always perfect, but I have found a mental space in which I can thrive in settings and situations in which I would have previously risked total mental shutdown.

While there are many of us who take kratom for anxiety, a significant majority of kratom consumers are either using kratom to successfully transition from opioids (prescription or otherwise) or to deal with debilitating chronic pain.

I can’t speak to either of these experiences personally, but I have been touched by the hundreds of stories from people who sincerely believe, as I do, that this plant has improved their lives for the better. They post smiling selfies of themselves, action shots with their kids, loving portraits with their partners. The before-and-afters are dramatic: I was an addict. I was hopeless. Rehab didn’t work. Suboxone was killing me. Methadone left me a zombie. I could barely walk from the pain, but I’m finally able to get out and enjoy life again.

The DEA has this to say about their struggle:

Especially concerning, reports note users have turned to kratom as a replacement for other opioids, such as heroin.

I don’t have time for everything that is wrong with that sentence.

Speaking only for myself, kratom both stimulates and gently relaxes my mind and body in a very specific way which leaves me more engaged and attentive to the people around me. It helps me to let go of the constant internal battles which anxiety otherwise create for me so that I can truly be in the social moment in a way that I have never experienced before. (And not in the loose, fuzzy, careless way that drinkers or cannabis enthusiasts know, but with myself fully intact and operating with a near-perfect lucidity and precision of language.) In short, it does everything for me that prescription anxiety medication promises consumers with none of the side effects — up to and including physical and mental dependence.

I have also found a new freedom of artistic expression through kratom. While I have been writing and recording music for some time, it is no coincidence that I have produced my best work to date during the same year that I have been consuming moderate amounts of kratom. My admittedly overambitious attempt at recording a #songaday (now downgraded to a more modestly realistic #songaweek) was made much easier by the relaxation and focus that this natural remedy provides. (I named one of my favorite compositions this year “Chasing the Hippo,” a playful inside tribute to a beloved kratom vendor.)

So that’s me. This is what a kratom consumer — someone the DEA believes to be “abusing” a soon-to-be-controlled-substance with “no medical value” — looks like.

Arguing before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court after my morning coffee and a teaspoon of kratom (May 2016)

If you have seen me out socially in the past year, if you have watched me represent clients in jury trials or motion hearings or asylum proceedings or before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, if you have seen me on the keys at the Maverick Marketplace Cafe or listened to my recordings, if you have read my Facebook posts and comments, if we have fought casino development or talked politics or played music together, or if you have received an email from me or we have exchanged anything more than a few words — well, there’s a reasonably good chance that I had recently consumed kratom within hours of doing any of those things.

And even if we’ve never met — well, not to put to fine a point on it, but you are almost finished (I promise) reading something written over the course of two evenings in which I happened to have consumed kratom.

I informed my doctor at my annual physical last October that I had started using moderate amounts of kratom to curb my anxiety.

I like my doctor. I trust my doctor. I listen to my doctor. My doctor certainly would have been within his rights to give me a stern warning about the dangers of buying exotic, unregulated powders from the Internet… but he just nodded. He told me that he had only just recently looked into it after a few patients had asked, but that from what he understood I was not taking any risks with my health so long as I continued to responsibly consume in moderation and without mixing it with other substances.

And he was right. I have been in good health for the past year; no mystery ailments. I had a round of blood tests (including a liver checkup) done a couple of weeks ago and all is well.

Good blood. (Test results from 08/18/2016.)

Can kratom be abused? Of course, as any substance can. But I have come after nearly a year of moderate, responsible, monitored use to conclude that it is unlikely that kratom could be abused to the degree or with the potential that we already know that alcohol or nicotine can cause to even to casual consumers.

One reason I am so certain of this is that kratom is not nearly as much fun or as easy to consume as alcohol, as inexpensive as cigarettes, or anywhere near as much of a “high” as marijuana. And like those substances (and most prescription drugs), I don’t believe that it should be consumed by minors or pregnant/nursing women. But I am here to tell you that moderate, responsible, kratom use while conducting a stressful, overcommitted, professional lifestyle is not only possible but in many ways better than any other available option for stress and anxiety.

Let’s get some perspective here:

Millions of Americans (including myself) are already hopelessly addicted to a psychoactive substance which they have to consume every morning before they can leave the house or get their workday started.

Here in New England, our most beloved local caffeine cartel proudly advertises that “America Runs On Dunkin’” — and they have a point. It does, and America is totally okay with that.

I can’t find a single reference to caffeine in DEA publications, but I have to wonder how kratom’s more popular cousin would be received today in an alternate universe in which it was just starting to find its way to our shores.

Compare the thousands of American Poison Center incidents annually reported for ultra-caffeinated energy drinks alone against the 660 reported kratom-related incidents in five years (a ridiculously negligible percentage of the over ten million Poison Center reports over that period) which the DEA is using to justify this “imminent threat to public safety.”

If kratom is a public health emergency based on a tiny handful of incidents (relative to the millions reported to the Poison Center each year), shouldn’t Monster and Rockstar be getting nervous?

We all know and love that person who puts down two liters of diet Coke every day, and most professional people I know (including myself) openly talk about being caffeine-dependent. I don’t think any of us would describe ourselves as “high” on caffeine, and that is exactly how I feel about kratom.

An estimated twenty percent of the American legal profession are problem drinkers. After ten years in private practice, I can certainly understand why: Our clients' lives and futures are often directly in our hands, and any human being is going to take that home with them. And especially for myself and my colleagues who practice immigration law, the risks of contact PTSD and compassion fatigue are never far away. It is on us to do the necessary work to keep our caseloads from driving us to things which would be harmful to our physical, mental, and professional health.

I have written mostly about my social anxiety here, but kratom has also been incredibly effective for helping me to relax through the general anxiety that the practice of law causes us all. It has also allowed me to push through the chronic insomnia which has always been a part of my life without the grog and hangover of any of the prescription medications that I have tried to help me sleep. (Lorezepam has worked for me in the past, but the same doctor who had no issues with me taking kratom has declined to prescribe it to me due to concerns of how habit-forming it can be.)

Kratom may not work for everyone, but who are the DEA to decide on so little evidence that no one should have a chance to find out for themselves? Where is the “emergency” here?

Honestly: If the Obama administration signs off on this historic mistake, I will lose something which has demonstrably improved my quality of life. But I lived without kratom for 35 years, and if it comes down to risking federal prison or finding other ways to cope with social anxiety I know that I can live without the additional benefits of kratom.

Far more than for myself, I am concerned for those who have been able to manage chronic pain and overcome their opioid dependence with the help of this amazing plant.

It is kratom’s unavailability, and not its legality, which poses the real “imminent threat to public safety.”

We already know from a recent criminalization measure in Alabama that as legal supplies of kratom dry up, untold thousands of kratom consumers will revert to opiates. It has been heartbreaking to watch the conversations online yesterday and today as so many struggle to come to terms with what this is really going to mean for lives they thought that they had taken back from chronic pain and addiction.

My thoughts have not been far from them and their families for the past 24 hours.

If you believe in sensible drug policy and allowing medical researchers access to all available resources to fight the American opioid epidemic, please consider a donation in any amount to the American Kratom Association.

#kratom #iamkratom #savekratom