Last year more people died from drug overdose than from traffic accidents. The majority of these deaths involve opioids, whether that’s prescription medication or street drugs. In Austin, some addicts are replacing opioids with an herbal supplement, which has the potential to save lives. But across the country, opponents of the herb are mounting a drive to get it banned.
Kratom technically isn’t a drug; it’s a dietary supplement. Meaning that, as far as the FDA is concerned, it’s legal. It comes from Thailand, where they make it by grinding down the broad leaves of the tropical Mitragnya speciosa plant into a fine powder.
Over the last few years it’s become more popular on this side of the Pacific. In lower doses, this cousin of the coffee plant works as a mild stimulant. It also acts on our opioid receptors, so if you take enough, it induces an opioid-like euphoria. While it’s not an actual opioid and doesn’t get you as high as pills or street drugs, several states have moved to outlaw the substance anyway – though not Texas.
Sam Ghanbar, self-professed “local superhero,” is active on the Austin music scene. He picks up his supply of kratom once a month.
“Kratom kind of helps motivate, gives me a little extra boost, like some people do a cup of coffee,” he says. “Part of it is definitely stimulating, but it’s mostly just euphoria. And I used to definitely abuse pharmaceuticals – hydrocodone, Norco, Percocet, Lortab, Lorcet – this has definitely been a great replacement for it.”
He says there are a lot of reasons he switched from pills to kratom: It’s cheaper, the comedown is milder, and it’s hard to OD on. If you take too much, you just end up throwing it up.
Some use kratom to kick a heroin addiction, Ghanbar says.
“Since I was turned onto it three years ago, I can name about 30 people,” he says. “I think it’s the difference of not dying, maybe, and dying.”
“It absolutely helps people,” says Mark Kinzly from the Austin Harm Reduction Coalition. The group meets addicts on the streets where they live, bringing services directly to them.
“Bottoming out, right now, in the opioid epidemic, looks like death. It’s really hard to do good work and get people services when they’re dead,” Kinzly says.
As a former IV user, for Kinzly this is an intensely personal matter. He’s been working in harm-reduction treatment since the 1980s.
“Recovery is any positive change, based on where you’re at in that particular moment,” Kinzly says. “And so just being realistic about what addiction looks like.”
“I do agree there is a harm-reduction benefit to using kratom.”
This could mean distributing clean needles, getting addicts to see a doctor, or moving them to a safer drug. Like Ghanbar, Kinzly has seen kratom used as a substitute for street drugs. It can also help people get completely off of drugs by taking the edge off of withdrawal.