Remember kratom? It's a Southeast Asian leaf that has been used as a mild narcotic (extremely mild—not one single overdose death has been reported in its centuries of use) and a kind of "herbal methadone" that cheaply and effectively helps people transition off harder, opiate-based drugs. (Some report relief from methamphetamine withdrawal as well.)
But in the US, those reports are mostly anecdotal. Kratom has only come onto America's radar screen in the past year or two. It's legal, and it's been used for centuries in Thailand and other SE Asian countries, but it hasn't been extensively researched by US or European scientists. (Though in a story last spring, I talked to a few of the researchers who are taking it seriously.)
But because kratom is a drug (a mild drug, but a drug) and because all drugs are bad (except for the ones that arbitrarily aren't), weaselly politicians and credulous reporters began squawking about the dangers of kratom as soon as they heard about it. Among the claims: It's fed to Islamist child soldiers of the southern Thai insurgency to make them ruthless killing machines, it causes kids to kill their parents, it causes hallucinations and overdose deaths, it "could wind up killing a child or blowing a child's mind forever." Even the DEA got into the act, and was particularly eager to circulate the "young Thai militants" meme.
Of course, those small-time politicians, drug warriors, and credulous reporters could not provide a scintilla of credible evidence to support their outrageous claims. (The most believable of which is that Islamist soldiers—child or otherwise—take it. But "soldiers take intoxicants" is not exactly a newsflash, and trying to examine the Islamist insurgency in southern Thailand through some cockeyed "kratom madness" squint is, at best, a total waste of time.)
One Iowa legislator I talked with took steps to ban kratom two hours after he heard about it on a talk-radio show. (No time for reading or research! To the ProhibitionMobile!) I asked him why. "It is banned in the two countries where it's grown," he said, "and banned in a whole bunch of European countries, like Australia [sic]."
That's the steadiest leg the knee-jerk prohibitionists have had to stand on—someone else banned it, so why shouldn't we?
Never mind that Thailand and Australia are notoriously prohibitionist about some freedoms we take for granted, such as freedom of expression. Australia has notoriously draconian censorship laws; in Thailand, it's a crime to insult the king. (And that's not a dusty old statute no one observes any more: A labor activist and magazine editor got a 10-year sentence for insulting the monarchy this year.) Their systems of jurisprudence should not be models for the US.
In other words, just because they banned it doesn't mean we should.
Justice Minister Chaikasem Nitsiri is pushing senior officials to end a 70-year-old ban on kratom enacted under a dubious pretense: kratom once helped opium users kick addiction in an era when the government raked in lucrative opium taxes.
In interviews with the domestic press, the minister has said the leaf could help wean Thais off meth, which has exploded in popularity across Southeast Asia.
The legal status of kratom is now under review in Thailand. “There’s never been a single death associated with kratom,” said Pascal Tanguay, a program director with the Thailand offices of PSI, a Washington DC-based global health organization that promotes harm reduction among drug users. “People have been chewing this for thousands of years with no cases of overdose, psychosis, murder, violent crime. Never in all of recorded history.”
When kratom is legalized in Thailand (and I think it will be—governments across the world are beginning to see the destructive futility of prohibitionist drug laws), those small-time politicians and credulous journalists won't have an excuse to scream for banning it here. They might actually be forced to read some real-life scientific research for a change.