Scientific American has a nice, calm, and rational interview with Edward Boyer (a professor of emergency medicine and director of medical toxicology at the University of Massachusetts medical school) about kratom, an obscure but increasingly popular leaf with mild narcotic properties.
I keep covering kratom because we're in a moment of transition in the US attitude towards drug prohibition, partly thanks to The Wire, Breaking Bad, increasing awareness of the drug-related carnage in Latin America, and state-by-state attempts to legalize and regulate the marijuana market. The way the US chooses to deal with kratom—knee-jerk prohibition? More research and then restriction? No regulation at all?—is a test case for this new stage of drug policy.
The Scientific American interview is a well-informed and plainspoken introduction to what kratom is (and isn't), why it was never picked up for serious pharmacological research (Smith, Kline & French, now part of GlaxoSmithKline, looked at it briefly in the 1960s), and its potential to treat depression, pain, and serious drug dependency.
One interesting tidbit: The Thai government, which originally banned kratom about 70 years ago (ostensibly to keep a better handle on profits from the opium trade) is now talking about legalizing the plant. Thai government officials have framed this as an attempt to cut down on meth use by providing people with a safer alternative, but Boyer disputes this claim:
They can decriminalize kratom until they’re blue in the face but the reality is that kratom is indigenous to Thailand—it’s readily available and always has been. Yet drug users are still opting for methamphetamines, which are stronger than kratom, not to mention dirt cheap and widely available. I suspect that Thailand is just trying to say that they’re doing something about their meth problem, but that it might not be that effective.
If the Thai government isn't serious about legalizing kratom to solve its meth problem, why the sudden interest in ending a nearly century-old (and, by most reports, never really enforceable) prohibition?
Maybe it's just a public-relations band aid for Thailand's drug issues, but one Slog reader emailed me this morning with another theory:
I have heard other theories for the move to legalise K in Thailand, mainly that since the bulk of the global heroin and opium production has moved out of the golden triangle and into Afghanistan the Indochinese countries, crime and interconnected government syndicates are looking to use a booming domestic and Western demand for kratom to recoup some of their lost revenue. This is the main reason the governments in those countries banned kratom in the first place, in order to keep opium as their number-one cash export.
Interesting idea. By reversing an expensive and impossible-to-enforce prohibition into a growth industry, you don't just save money—you make money!
If Thai kratom entrepreneurs can work out and market an at-home detox regimen for the world's millions of opiate-dependent drug users, they'll be sitting on a gold mine—plus a lot of irritated pharma companies and other drug barons.