SCRANTON, LACKAWANNA COUNTY (WBRE/WYOU) — A raging debate is underway about an herbal supplement that the FDA says is not safe for medical use. It’s called kratom which many claim has been the solution to their pain and even opioid addiction.
Last November, Eyewitness News reported about a dangerous interaction a northeastern Pennsylvania soldier experienced when he took kratom along with prescription opioids. Since that report, many people in the pro-kratom community contacted Eyewitness News Healthbeat Reporter Mark Hiller saying how the herb has improved their lives. Among them is a Scranton businessman who uses and sells it.
That powdery substance Stan Dombrowski put into a glass isn’t a tea mix. The co-owner of Within My Hands LLC Holistic Wellness stirred in kratom. It’s replaced the medication Mr. Dombrowski was taking to cope with pain from a serious 2013 back injury. “I have some damage to two of my discs and I’ve got nerve damage throughout the left side.”
He recalls a concerning conversation he had with his doctor about his then prescription opioid use. “I said to him the relief I’m getting is not the same as it was previous. I’m basically in withdrawal every morning because I’m not getting enough of the pharmaceutical drug.”
Fearing addiction, Mr. Dombrowski began researching kratom which is derived from a leafy tree grown in southeast Asia. It’s taken either as an opiate substitute or a stimulant in either powder or capsule form. Mr. Dombrowski tried it about a year ago and after tweaking the dosage, “a pretty low dose, about two grams,” he said …he discovered the pain solution he’d been seeking.
“I found that not only was I getting relief, I wasn’t needing to go back to the opiates.” When Mr. Dombrowski and his wife Robin opened their business last year, they decided besides providing services like reiki and meditation they’d also offer products to promotes wellness including kratom. “It works so well that you want to tell people that are in pain.”
“It was one of the best decisions for my health I ever made,” said Laura Jones of Nanticoke. She began using kratom as a natural alternative to the eleven prescription medications she was taking for conditions including herniated discs and hip dysplasia. Fearing physical consequences of her meds, she ditched them and made the switch to kratom. When asked how quickly she felt relief, she replied “The same day. The same day I started taking it.”
Ms. Jones now volunteers with the American Kratom Association which is the largest pro-kratom organization in the U.S. She spreads awareness about the herbal supplement that’s been used for centuries but has only been in the U.S. for about two decades. “Mostly educating people because it has gotten a bad rap in a lot of ways,” she said.
The FDA just this week blasted kratom saying it contains the same chemicals found in opioids and listed 44 deaths involving kratom since 2011. In a statement, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said of kratom’s chemical make-up “two of the top five most prevalent compounds (including mitragynine) are known to activate opioid receptors” and added “it’s an opioid that’s associated with novel risks because of the variability in how it’s being formulated, sold and used recreationally.” Ms. Jones considers the findings flawed. “The claims that the FDA made are false and they’ve been shown false through science and through investigating their claims and they’re not providing full evidence to people.”
Case in point, Johns Hopkins University addictions specialist Jack Henningfield, Ph.D. who conducted an eight factor analysis of kratom claims it’s no more addictive than a cup of coffee and that scheduling it – meaning classifying it as a drug of abuse – would cause more harm to society than leaving it alone.
While Ms. Jones disputes the FDA’s findings about potential harms from kratom, she does welcome the government agency’s regulation. Kratom is often sold in gas stations or so-called “head shops” with no guarantees of its purity. “I think people should be getting a safe and tested herbal supplement, you know. And at this point, it is kind of in a black market area because it’s not regulated through the FDA.”
That makes vendors like Mr. Dombrowski, who sells his kratom powder for 60 cents a gram, part of a self-regulating industry. “We make sure it’s organic and it’s tested for mold, mildew, pesticides. We know that people are getting what they’re paying for.”
Mr. Dombrowski just hopes the federal government doesn’t take what he considers a safe product for pain, anxiety and depression out of the public’s hands. “Is it a miracle cure? Absolutely not. But as far as opiates, to me it’s the answer,” he said.
While the FDA has yet to ban kratom, its inspectors have been seizing and destroying shipments at international mail facilities for months. It’s expected the FDA could take months or even years to reach a final decision about kratom’s fate.