The Untold Story of How Kratom Made It to America

In every age and nation, some exhilarating or exciting substance seems to have been sought for, as a relief from the languor of idleness, or the fatigues of labor.

– James Madison,  1819

Introduction

Kratom, or Mitragyna Speciosa, is an evergreen tree in the coffee family native to Southeast Asia. In regions where it grows in the wild, countries like Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia, the plant has been used for hundreds of years in traditional medicines and remains a normal part of life today.

For these cultures, kratom is regarded as a natural energy boost and pain reliever, as well as an alternative to opium for the less affluent.

The association between kratom and opium is the key to understanding why it took so long for kratom to make it to the US. It also explains why the plant still faces government opposition today.

In this post, we’ll discuss how kratom was discovered, what occured in the hundred years after, and how we’re still dealing with the residual consequences of kratom prohibition.

A Brief Kratom History

In the 1830s, the Dutch East India Trading Company sent their official botanist, a man named Pieter Korthals, on a three year trip through Southeast Asia. During his travels, Korth noticed locals using the leaves from a local tree that, at the time, was unknown in the west.

He published his findings along with a detailed description of the tree in 1839, creating the first known account of kratom is the west.

Despite being historically relevant, Korthal’s writings didn’t spark global interest in kratom. The plant remained relatively unknown in the west until pharmaceutical companies began researching compounds for new drug development in the 1960s. 

Kratom Prohibition in Thailand 

In the early 1940s, the Thai government attempted to boost revenue by placing a new tax on opium. Local farmers, many of whom couldn’t afford the new tax, responded by switching to kratom. For them, kratom was a widely available cheaper alternative. 

It didn’t take long for the Thai government to feel the effects, and in 1943 they responded by placing a ban on kratom.

The important point here is not that the ban existed, but rather why it existed: kratom prohibition began out of economic and political reasons that had little to do with the plant’s underlying safety.

Some historians claim otherwise, but the Thai government’s official statement at the time clarifies their true motivation: 

“Taxes for opium are high while kratom is currently not being taxed. With the increase of those taxes, people are starting to use kratom instead and this has had a visible impact on our government’s income.” 

– Police Major General Pin Amornwisaisoradej, 1943

With prohibition in full effect, any chance of kratom making it to the west was dashed. It would take over a decade for a team of US researchers to find kratom, sparking new interest in the powerful tropical herb. 

Kratom Research in the West

In the 1960s, pharmaceutical companies began funding researchers looking for natural compounds that could be used in new drug development.

Their interest in kratom stemmed from a 1921 study where researchers isolated the main compounds in kratom, mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine. Their finding led to the realization that kratom had similarities with the compounds being used in pain medications, namely morphine.

As you already know, this research never translated to a commercial product.

Despite finding a theoretical basis for pain or inflammation relief, the pharmaceutical companies already had drugs that served that commercial purpose. In turn, the project died. After that, kratom fell off the map after that until the early 2000s, when it reemerged  in the US in a commercial setting. Kratom finally had a home in the west. 

Top Tree Tea

The US kratom story started relatively uneventful. It could be found in some specialty herb shops but remained unknown to a mainstream audience. Even herbal encyclopedias in the west rarely mention the plant.

By 2016, however, its popularity had spread to the point that the media caught wind – their subsequent reports described a new opium-like drug being sold over the counter.

In turn, the D.E.A. and FDA turned their attention to kratom, launching a prohibition campaign that had one goal in mind: making kratom illegal. 

Keeping Kratom Legal

It came to a head when the D.E.A issued a recommendation to Congress to make kratom a Schedule I Controlled Substance. Their stance was that there were no known medical benefits of the plant.

Although their tactic worked in the past, with substances like cannabis, there was one problem with their argument: they cited research showing people used kratom for pain relief as an alternative to traditional opioids.

The activists jumped on this, using it to show that even the government agreed kratom had some medical value. If Congress accepted this argument, it would prevent them from making kratom a Schedule I Controlled Substance.

Beyond the legal arguments, thousands of kratom users from around the country wrote congress (Top Tree included) to voice opposition to the ban.

All said and done, 62 members of congress, 1,175 doctors and legal officials, and over 100K citizens spoke out against the ban, and the D.E.A. withdrew their recommendation—an unpresented action that brings us to day. 

Kratom in the US Today

Today, kratom is in a legal grey area. Even though it’s legal on the federal level, the FDA doesn’t believe there are any safe uses for the plant, and they won’t approve research that could show otherwise.

To be clear here, the FDA says they’ll approve research if someone submits a proposal, but we’ve spoken with a number of researchers who say the FDA’s public stace doesn’t match what’s said behind closed doors.

The federal government’s stance on kratom means that, for the foreseeable future, it will remain a state issue, much like cannabis today. 

Conclusion

To finish up, today kratom is legal throughout the US, with the exception of the following six states: Arkansas, Alabama, Vermont, Indiana, Rhode Island, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

Although the bans are already being challenged, and three states are close to reversing their positions, the fight isn’t over. It will be a few years until the Kratom Consumer Protection Act—a bill that guarantees access to kratom—is signed into law in more states around the country (see legal status in your state here).

We believe kratom is on the path to broader society acceptance, and that future research will make the rationale even more obvious.

We hope this post helps you see that kratom prohibition is not the result of a consensus within the medical community. In reality, it stems from the economic and political jockeying of various government groups.

To us, this is all the reason we need to stay engaged in the fight to keep kratom legal.