“It’s been a year since someone told me about kratom,” says former Rossville resident John Butler. “I’m thankful every day. It’s changed my life.”

Butler says he’s lived with severe pain since he was a child. “I was seven when I realized other people’s feet don’t hurt all the time. I spent a year in leg braces when I was three, which is when the pain began.”

Butler, a building contractor, says numerous injuries over the years, including a fall from a 32-foot roof, a screw through an eye and severe arthritis resulted in 20 years of consuming 8-14 aspirin a day in addition to daily doses of prescription narcotic painkillers that resulted in dependency.

“Because of kratom, I’m off all of that,” Butler says. “It relieves my pain and I don’t have cravings for it like I did for the narcotic prescription.”

But many people don’t view kratom the way Butler does. Catoosa County Coroner Vanita Hullander wants to see the substance that comes from the leaves of a tree grown in southeast Asian countries studied by the Food and Drug Administration and restricted until it is. Her efforts have started close to home.

Hullander approached Georgia District 3 Representative DeWayne Hill of Catoosa County with her concerns. Hill responded by forming a committee to study the issue. State Sen. Jeff Mullis of Chickamauga started a committee for the same purpose in the upper house and the two joined to invite medical experts, representatives from the kratom industry and others to testify.

Mullis, who serves as chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, represents the District 53, which includes Catoosa, Walker, Dade counties and portions of Chattooga County.

The House Study Committee on Risks Associated with Kratom held its first meeting in October 2018 and two subsequent meetings in December. Rep. Hill says information from the meetings is being organized and will come before the committee soon for further consideration.

Speakers at the committee’s first meeting included Jack Henningfield, Ph.D., vice president of Research, Health Policy and Abuse Liability, Pinney Associates; Charles M. Haddow, Senior Fellow in Public Policy with the American Kratom Association and former chief of staff (under Reagan) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Michael McPherson, Governmental Relations Associate with the Georgia Municipal Association; Catoosa County Coroner Vanita Hullander; and Georgia State Representative Vernon Jones (District 91).

Henningfield is considered a leading expert on addiction and the behavioral, cognitive and central nervous system effects of drugs. He spoke at length about how kratom works in the brain, including how it attaches to opioid receptors in the brain but does not suppress the respiratory system, which is what kills most people who die of opioid abuse. He does not favor subjecting kratom to FDA testing as a narcotic drug, a process that can take 10 years and well over a billion dollars, but he does support regulation in the form of testing for purity, limiting who can buy kratom (no one under 18), and truthful labeling.

Henningfield said at the meeting that the FDA has been wrong on its science and on its policy regarding kratom. In 2017 the FDA sent a recommendation to the Drug Enforcement Administration suggesting that two chemicals in kratom should be classified as Schedule I drugs, the most restrictive designation. The DEA agreed, but a public outcry resulted in them backing off.

Charles Haddow of the American Kratom Association said in his testimony before the committee that he is in agreement that kratom should be tested for purity. He defended the value he says kratom offers its users — a way to get off opioids, including prescription opioids, and a way to manage pain and generally feel better. He echoed Henningfield’s judgment of 44 kratom-related deaths cited by the FDA in some of its documents, pointing out that nine of those deaths occurred within a short period in Sweden where the kratom that was ingested had been adulterated with other drugs, and all but one of the remaining deaths involved multiple harmful substances the deceased had taken, making it impossible to pinpoint a specific cause of death. Haddow suggested that regulation and inspections could weed out the “bad players” and assure that the kratom entering the country is pure. He said it was not the kratom that was the problem, but the contamination of kratom by other substances.

Michael McPherson with the Georgia Municipal Association told the committee that one of his main concerns is the ability of the state to respond swiftly and strongly to tainted kratom. “The cities in Georgia are often the first to recognize threats at the local level and are well-positioned to be the first to react,” McPherson said. He emphasized that the state of Georgia can take action on the issue without depending on the FDA.

Catoosa County Coroner Vanita Hullander told the committee she has grave concerns about kratom. One of them, she said, is claims online that the substance is a cure-all for everything from pain to diabetes. “To me that is totally irresponsible,” she said and expressed concerns about people turning away from doctor-prescribed medicines hoping for a miracle cure in kratom.

Hullander said the U.S. has a long history of dealing with drugs that were considered miracle cures when they were first introduced, including morphine, heroin and cocaine, and sold legally until the devastating effects became apparent, and she’s concerned that kratom is yet another “trade-off” — the exchange of one problem for another.

“I know a lot of people are claiming kratom helps with pain,” said Hullander, “but I have talked to numerous people who say they use it for the opiate effect at high doses. Our country has a real problem with addiction.”

Hullander also said she does not appreciate what she considers strong-armed tactics of some people in the kratom industry. She said the last time she spoke out against kratom, the American Kratom Association sent “harassing” letters to the Catoosa County Board of Commissioners and the Georgia Coroners Association lodging complaints about her public comments regarding kratom. She told the committee that in addition to restricting kratom until it can be further studied, she hopes they will protect the freedom of those who speak out against kratom.

Rep. Vernon Jones (District 91) spoke last. He told the committee he is a kratom user. “I am a responsible user of kratom,” he said. “It is my choice to use kratom. I have not had any problems using kratom.” Vernon likened kratom to the natural remedies his mother used when he was growing up, but he said he recognizes that “like any product, it can be adulterated and cause problems.” Vernon said he supports protecting the public from tainted product but wants to be sure the government does not overreach.

“I think we’re all in agreement on this in one respect,” said Rep. Hill during a recent interview. “We need quality control, honest packaging and further study. And we need to protect children. This is a complex issue and our committee is taking it very seriously. I would be happy to hear from more people on this issue as we work toward a recommendation for the next steps.”

Further reading/watching

October meeting of The House Study Committee on Risks Associated with Kratom: livestream.com/accounts/25225474/events/8329467/videos/181221623

Following “the Roots” of Kratom: ncbi.nim.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4657101

“A Leaf of Faith,” documentary exploring many views on kratom, available on Amazon.com and Netflix

Facts about kratom

What is kratom? Kratom is an evergreen tree in the coffee family. Its scientific name is mitragyna speciosa. The leaves are used in various forms to produce products people consume to manage pain, withdraw from opioids and enhance mood, among other things.

How do people use kratom? Kratom is most often made into a powder and mixed into teas and juices or put into capsules.

Where does kratom come from? Mostly from Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea.

Is kratom legal in the United States? According the American Kratom Association, kratom is banned in Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Rhode Island, Vermont, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C. A ban in Tennessee was reversed as of July 2018, but only plain leaf kratom is allowed and only for those aged 21 and over. Some cities have banned kratom.