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Kratom: What cops need to know about the drug the DEA plans to ban

Kratom, currently sold as a health supplement, is often used by individuals as an alternative to heroin

On Aug. 31, 2016, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration proposed that kratom, a drug sold legally in the U.S., be designated as a Schedule I drug. The new rule was outlined in this week’s federal register and will take effect on September 30, 2016.

As a new schedule I drug, kratom will join the ranks of drugs in that category that include heroin, LSD, marijuana, MDMA and psilocybin. Schedule I drugs have no medical purpose and a high potential for abuse. Until recently kratom was considered a health supplement, but in actuality, it has become a heroin substitute and has been widely abused.

According to the DEA, “The amount of kratom material seized by law enforcement for the first half of 2016 greatly exceeds any previous year totals and easily accounts for millions of dosage units intended for the recreational market.”

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, from January 2010 through December 2015 U.S. poison control centers received 660 calls related to kratom exposure. Of the calls reported, 487 (73.8 percent) reported intentional exposure to kratom, and 595 (90.2 percent) reported ingestion of the drug. There have been 15 deaths associated with kratom use from 2014 to 2016.

What is kratom?

Kratom is a slang term for a plant called Mitragyna speciose that is commonly sold in smoke shops and over the internet. Kratom is used for a variety of reasons, but it is gaining traction among heroin users as a way to suppress opiate withdrawals. There is no scientific evidence that kratom is effective in staving withdrawal symptoms, but it is addictive.

Police awareness of kratom

Officers on the street are most likely to encounter kratom as a greenish powder contained inside a clear capsule. Users that are under the influence of kratom will use a dose of 2 to 5 grams orally to get a high that lasts from two to six hours. The most popular method of consuming kratom is by swallowing it as a pill, but the leaves can be chewed or it can be brewed in a tea. Users feel euphoria and effects similar to opiate influence.

Unlike other drugs, kratom has no popular slang terms for it or its use in the U.S. Slang terms in other countries include kakuam, ithang, and thom.

Kratom is often used by individuals to avoid mandatory drug testing, such as truck drivers or probationers) to get high while testing negative on a random or reasonable suspicion drug test.

Lab testing

Most reputable labs can test for the presence of kratom in the urine and blood. According to the DEA report, the number of positive results for kratom from laboratory analyses increased from 31 positive results between August 2012 to July 2013 to 555 positive results for kratom between December 2014 and March 2016.

The lab tests performed came from requests from drug treatment centers, police, employers and courts.

Officers should be aware that current users of kratom will likely begin buying every package of kratom they can find. When their supply runs out, it is unknown what drug they will resort to, but one could speculate that they will return to opiates or other alternatives, like loperamide, as their withdrawals from kratom use set in.

Keith is a retired Police Sergeant who worked in the San Francisco Bay Area for 29 years. He was named as California’s Narcotics Officer of the Year and is a prior winner of MADD’s California Hero Award. He has years of experience as a Narcotics Detective and a Narcotics Unit Supervisor and is a Drug Recognition Expert Instructor (IACP #3292). He has developed several drug courses for the California Narcotics Officers Association, California POST and California Colleges, and currently consults POST on drug investigation procedures. Keith has taught thousands of officers and businesses around the world about drug use, drug trends, compliance training and drug investigations. He is recognized as an international drug expert and has testified as an expert in court proceedings on drug cases, homicide cases and rape prosecutions. Keith is the Founder and President of Graves & Associates, a company dedicated to providing drug training to law enforcement and private industry. Keith is a member of the Police1 Editorial Advisory Board.