Could Kratom End the Opioid Crisis?

(AP Photo/Mary Esch, File)

At BuzzFeed, Azeen Ghorayshi reports on kratom, a plant-based substance that has helped some opioid abusers to overcome addiction. When users ingest kratom, it latches on to the same brain receptors as heroine and fentanyl, blocking the crippling withdrawal symptoms that prevent many users from breaking their habit. The problem is, because it does latch on to those same receptors, the US government’s not sure if they should classify it as an opioid and restrict it as a Schedule I controlled substance, even though it comes without a high.

By the time Courtney True found the Reddit thread about kratom in December 2016, she hadn’t touched an opioid for 48 hours. She was in bad shape — stomach cramps, diarrhea, jitters, hot sweats, cold sweats, and body aches that made even her teeth hurt. Sitting at her kitchen table hunched over a laptop, she recalled, “I felt like I wanted to rip my skin off and step out of it.”

True had been dependent on opioids since she was a 14-year-old growing up in Mississippi, when a doctor prescribed her Percocet to treat chronic migraines. By the age of 24, she was shooting OxyContin. A decade after that — after moving to Maine, becoming a nurse, and having two kids — the Drug Enforcement Administration cracked down on sketchy online pharmacies that sold pills, and True started on heroin.

Her husband drove her a half hour to a smoke shop in downtown Portland. She bought a little of everything: a small bag of crushed kratom leaves, some capsules, and two tiny bottles of extracts, all for about $100.

Back in the car, heater blasting, she swallowed some of the capsules and downed a bottle, then sat waiting, skeptically, to feel something like a high. She never did, but within 20 minutes her withdrawal symptoms had faded away. “It was like a fog had cleared,” True said. “They were just gone.”

Now 18 months have passed, and True has been heroin-free for 17. She drinks a murky kratom-grapefruit juice mix several times a day, and credits the plant for saving not only her own life, but also her family’s.

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