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Susan Ash’s boxes were packed. After years of pain and addiction, she finally felt stable enough to move out of Norfolk, away from her parents, and to Portland, Ore., where she could start over.
But on Aug. 31, when the Drug Enforcement Administration announced that it would temporarily classify kratom, a plant-based stimulant, as a Schedule I controlled substance, Ash had to rethink her move. The DEA’s proposal meant that kratom would be treated like drugs such as heroin, LSD, marijuana, MDMA (also known as “ecstasy”) and peyote, all of which are currently Schedule 1 substances.
“It was a complete and total shock to us all,” she said in a phone interview.
Kratom, made from plant leaves native to Southeast Asia, has drawn national attention after the DEA’s announcement. It’s garnered the consideration of prominent lawmakers who’re asking the Obama administration to delay the ban, which could come as early as Friday. For many, the substance has helped curb addiction to opioids and painkillers, and users fear they might be forced into opiate use again. Susan Ash is one of them.
“It’s literally saving people’s lives. And the kind of people that I am hearing from are terrified. They’re panicked. They don’t want to go back to opioids,” she said.
Her boxes are packed, but without kratom, Ash may not be going anywhere.
According to the DEA, a schedule I drug is defined as a substance with no accepted medical use and high potential for abuse.
But to Ash, kratom is anything but. The people who use it, she says, are not young people looking to experiment.
“We’re just your average everyday normal person looking for a natural alternative,” she said. Right now, the substance is legal in all 50 states, except Tennessee, Vermont, Wisconsin, Indiana, Alabama and Arkansas.
Still, the substance isn’t necessarily harmless, says Dr. Kirk Cumpston, medical director of the Virginia Poison Center. Statistics say of the 13 calls the Poison Center’s received since 2010, 77 percent of patients took the substance intentionally. Of those, 20 percent were suicide attempts.
“I think right now it doesn’t meet any medicinal use because it hasn’t really been studied in any sort of trials or anything to show efficacy or safety,” Cumpston said. He said the same thing may happen to kratom as marijuana: it might be used medicinally eventually, but will be scheduled at first.
But if kratom keeps people from using heroin or other opioids — which, Ash says, is pretty common — Cumpston said it might not be all that bad.
“Then I think it’s probably a worthwhile effort,” he said.
That’s how Ash was first introduced to kratom.
Incorrectly diagnosed with fibromyalgia, Ash was prescribed enough narcotics “that could’ve taken an elephant out,” she said.
When she was finally diagnosed with Lyme disease, she was put on intravenous antibiotics. While all her other friends were getting married and having kids, Ash was forced to move back home to Norfolk.
“That was probably the hardest time in my life,” she remembers.
She started abusing drugs as an escape. She didn’t “doctor-shop” or use heroin, but her day revolved around her next dose. One day, she lied to her Lyme disease support group: her medicine was stolen and she was in withdrawal. A stranger suggested she try kratom. Ash was skeptical.
“When you’re addicted to narcotics, you don’t want a plant,” Ash said.
But she called the woman and learned about the process: how much to take, where to order it, what kind of dosage Ash would need. Because it’s not FDA-approved, the instructions were tricky.
But it worked. The day after she started taking kratom, her withdrawal symptoms were gone.
In the morning, Ash takes about two teaspoons of the powder at a time. Sometimes, she’ll take capsules or brew it in tea. All it takes is five to 15 minutes, she says, to feel better. Through the years, she’s needed less and less of it.
Ash says she doesn’t crave kratom.
“It doesn’t give you euphoria like that. It doesn’t enable you to escape your problems like opiates do,” she said.
It’s helped her feel better. On Sept. 13, Ash and the American Kratom Association, a consumer group of almost 8,000 she founded, organized a protest at the White House.
The most moving part, she said, was seeing the people who use kratom who might be affected by the DEA’s ban: veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, moms pushing strollers, elderly people.
Of the 13 calls to Virginia Poison Control, four came from Norfolk and Virginia Beach. Sixty-nine percent were male patients, and the average age of patients was 29 years, with a range from 15 to 60 years old.
“This is something that could curb our nation’s opiate epidemic,” she said.
The movement’s gaining traction. A White House petition‘s gotten 136,905 signatures, and stories about kratom are circulating on social media with hashtags #IAmKratom and #KratomSavesLives.
U.S. Reps. Matt Salmon, an Arizona Republican, and Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat, co-authored a letter to the DEA, but were not available for comment.
Letters to acting DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg and Budget Director Shaun Donovan from 45 members of the House of Representatives call the decision “hasty” and note that it “could have serious effects on consumer access and choice of an internationally recognized herbal supplement.”
A letter to Donovan asks that he overrule the DEA, invoking an emergency power.
The DEA could make a call as early as Sept. 30.
“It’s sad and it’s terrifying and to see this community come together the way we have has been amazing,” Ash said.