What Is Kratom? Opioid Alternative Poses 'Deadly Risks,' FDA Warns

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Citing 36 deaths, the Food and Drug Administration chief will warn consumers on Tuesday not to use the herbal supplement kratom to ease opioid withdrawal and announce plans to step its regulatory oversight to combat the opioid epidemic. The plant is used in a supplement and is marketed for a variety of uses, including everything from treating pain and anxiety to helping people recover from opioid withdrawal.

The FDA said it is working to prevent shipments of kratom in the United States and has detained hundreds of these packages at worldwide mail facilities.

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Kratom has a particular compound, called mitragynine, which binds to the same receptors that opioids like heroin does, Chemical & Engineering News reported.

But in a statement, FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb said there is no "reliable evidence" to support the use of kratom as a treatment for opioid-use disorder, and that there are no other FDA-approved uses of kratom. Additionally, the FDA is aware of reports of 26 deaths associated with the use of kratom-containing products, and that there have been reports of kratom being laced with other opioids like hydrocodone.

The herb gives its users a euphoric feeling when used recreationally, but it's also proven to be just as addictive and, in some cases, deadly as opioids. "Calls to US poison control centers regarding kratom have increased 10-fold from 2010 to 2015, with hundreds of calls made each year", said FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb in a statement.

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"This is especially relevant given the public's perception that it can be a safe alternative to prescription opioids", he added.

Kratom, which has been consumed in Southeast Asia for centuries, binds to the same opioid receptor as morphine - so it can treat pain.

Gottlieb said that the drug should be studied before people take it for any reason.

"While we remain open to the potential medicinal uses of kratom, those uses must be backed by sound science and weighed appropriately against the potential for abuse", Gottlieb wrote. Several other states are reviewing proposals to outlaw it, Gottlieb noted.

"We have identified kratom products on two import alerts and we are working to actively prevent shipments of kratom from entering the U.S.", Gottlieb said.

The U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse has information on commonly abused drugs.