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Kratom Krazed: One Florida Lawmaker's Lonely, Wacky Crusade to Ban the Herb [FEATURE]

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This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

Florida state Rep. Kristin Jacobs (D-Coconut Creek) is a woman on a mission, albeit a strange and misinformed one. For the last three years, Jacobs has waged a lonely crusade in Tallahassee to ban kratom, the herb derived from a Southeast Asian tree and widely used for pain relief, withdrawal from opiates, and as a less harmful alternative to opiates.

She's at it again this year, having just introduced a measure, House Bill 183, that would add mitragynine and hydroxymitragynine, the active constituents of kratom, to the state's controlled substances list. And she's invoking the specter of Hitler as she does so.

Saying the kratom ban was a "fall on the sword issue" for her, Jacobs railed against the people who have opposed her prohibitionist efforts, accusing them of Goebbels-like propaganda.

"They have a story," she told the St. Peters Blog. "Just like Hitler believed if you tell a lie over and over again, it becomes the truth."

Portraying herself as a bravely challenging a "lie machine… a powerful lobby with lots of money," Jacobs warned against "Big Kratom." "It's not just what they're doing here," she said. "They're doing the same thing around the country."

"They" would be the American Kratom Association and the Botanical Education Alliance. The former was founded by Susan Ash, a 46-year-old who began taking kratom while being treated for dependence on prescription pain relievers and now takes a small dose daily to ease chronic pain and depression. She was so impressed with the results, she founded the group in 2015 to represent kratom consumers. The group now has more than 2,000 members and lobbies against efforts to ban the drug.

The latter is a small nonprofit organization "dedicated to educating consumers, lawmakers, law enforcement, and the media aboutstyl safe and therapeutic natural supplements including Mitragyna speciosa, also known as Kratom," the group says on its web page. "Our mission is to increase understanding in order to influence public policy and protect natural supplements. Our vision is to create a society where every adult has the right to access safe and effective natural supplements."

According to the American Kratom Association, "Kratom is not a drug. Kratom is not an opiate. Kratom is not a synthetic substance. Naturally occurring Kratom is a safe herbal supplement that's more akin to tea and coffee than any other substances. Kratom behaves as a partial mu-opioid receptor agonist and is used for pain management, energy, even depression and anxiety that are so common among Americans. Kratom contains no opiates, but it does bind to the same receptor sites in the brain. Chocolate, coffee, exercise and even human breast milk hit these receptor sites in a similar fashion."

Unsurprisingly, Jacobs disagrees. She calls the herb a "scourge on society" and says it "is an opiate," breezily lumping it in with heroin and pain pill mills.

In Jacobs' dystopian vision, she foresees babies born with withdrawal symptoms, emergency room doctors treating strung-out kratom junkies in the throes of withdrawal, and "addicts with glassy eyes and shaky hands" lurking about until the dreaded kratom overdose gets them. "How many more are going to die?" she asks.

Singlehandedly waging a Florida war on kratom: Rep. Kristin Davis (Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

Well, not many, actually. Like opiates, kratom relieves pain, slows bowel activity, produces euphoric feelings, and creates physical addiction and a withdrawal syndrome. But unlike opiates, it causes a pleasant, caffeine-type buzz in small doses and, more significantly, it is apparently very difficult -- if not impossible -- to overdose on it. The few deaths where kratom is implicated include poly-drug use, or as in a case reported by the New York Times, suicide by a young kratom user who was also being treated for depression.

"Direct kratom overdoses from the life-threatening respiratory depression that usually occurs with opioid overdoses have not been reported," says Oliver Grundmann, clinical associate professor of medicinal chemistry at the University of Florida, told journalist Maia Szalavitz at Vice. Grundmann should know; he just reviewed the research on kratom for the International Journal of Legal Medicine.

Szalavitz also consulted Mark Swogger, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center, who with his colleagues analyzed 161 "experience reports" posted by kratom users on the drug information site Erowid.org for a recent study in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs.

"I think it's pretty safe to say that kratom has at least some addiction potential. The data is fairly strong on that and our study also found that people are reporting addiction," but "overall, we found that it's really mild compared to opioid addiction and it didn't seem to last as long."

Jacobs' inflammatory and ill-founded comments generated a quick and strong reaction from kratom advocates. Kendra Jowers, who sits on the advisory board of the Botanical Education Alliance, didn't mince any words.

"It's difficult to know how to respond to what Representative Jacobs said, because what she said was borderline lunatic," Jowers told the Florida Report. "And I think any sane, rational person could recognize it as such -- whether they have personal ties to kratom or not," she said.

"When Representative Jacobs feels the need to compare an advocacy organization like the Botanical Education Alliance to the Third Reich, she's already lost the argument. She's already shown that she has no winning hand; that's why she resorts to such absurd and outrageously dishonest appeals to emotion and irrationality. We are a group of professionals from across the country who have volunteered our time to fight for people's right to use a natural supplement to curtail their pain and wean off of addiction to opioids and alcohol. To liken us to Hitler is reprehensible and entirely unprofessional," Jowers continued. "That is not to mention how abhorrent and obscene it was for her to trivialize one of the worst atrocities in human history."

Kratom is often prepared as a tea. (Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

Jowers wasn't done. She also took umbrage at Jacobs' portrayal of kratom users as glassy-eyed addicts.

"She may not have named names, but those were personal attacks. Because when she characterizes kratom users this way -- glassy-eyed, shaking, helpless addicts who aren't competent to understand what they're fighting for here -- she is personally attacking the tens of thousands of Floridians who use kratom to responsibly manage their health conditions," Jowers noted.

"Kratom users are mothers, grandmothers, brothers, sisters, and notably, veterans suffering from PTSD, pain, and addiction that may have resulted from what they've endured in the course of their service to this country. I guarantee, you encounter kratom users all the time, and you would have no idea that they are using it unless they were to tell you -- contrary to Representative Jacobs' histrionic and inaccurate characterization," Jowers added.

The American Kratom Association and the Botanical Education Alliance have led the charge against the DEA's move to federally ban kratom -- a pushback that resulted in the agency's unprecedented decision to delay or possibly even undo the proposed ban. And now they are leading the charge to push back against Rep. Jacobs and her war on the herb.

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