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Legislating a Leaf: Kratom Laws in America

May 22, 2023

Kratom leavesIt doesn’t get much more natural than a leaf. In fact, leaves are universally used as a symbol of nature itself. Just close your eyes and think of the word “nature” and try not to picture a leaf of some kind. It’s impossible.

Plants and trees grow them. The Sun feeds them. Living creatures eat them and breathe their oxygen. And humans for thousands of years have used them for an astounding variety of healing benefits. Even in these modern times, people seem to instinctively trust a leaf more than a lab.

Kratom is one such leaf.

However, kratom's legal status in the U.S. is currently in limbo. Some states have banned it outright, while others have localized bans in place. But is it really appropriate to ban this amazing leaf that has helped millions of people around the world find relief?

To Ban or Not To Ban

Banned stampIf we’ve learned anything from the War on Drugs over the last several decades, it should be that not only are bans ineffective, but they also create far more unsafe conditions than regulated legalization. They remove all the responsible and reputable suppliers from the equation, leaving only the unscrupulous ones to meet the continuing demand. Plus, they force law-abiding users who have been relying on the benefits of the product to find a different—and most likely less safe—alternative.

Also, after witnessing the history of cannabis prohibition, we should know by now to maintain a healthy skepticism when the government claims that a natural plant must be banned because it is “dangerous” or has “no accepted medical use.” Both these assertions are clearly false when it comes to cannabis, and (almost) everyone knows it. Even still, despite all the evidence, widespread acceptance, and legalization progress among the states, cannabis somehow remains a Schedule I drug federally.

History has been at risk of repeating itself with kratom. Thankfully, though, there have been successful efforts to spread the truth about kratom’s benefits and safety, and attempts to ban kratom federally have not worked thus far. However, with some state bans still in effect, more work needs to be done.

Kratom Laws in America

Federal Level

Kratom is currently legal at the federal level in the U.S., but that has not come without a fight.

In 2016, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) attempted to place kratom on its list of Schedule I substances, which would have made it illegal to possess or sell kratom in the U.S. The DEA cited concerns about kratom's potential for abuse and addiction.

However, after significant outcry from kratom users and advocates—including a “March for Kratom” at the White House which generated support from a bipartisan group of more than 60 Congress members—the DEA withdrew its proposal. Instead, the DEA requested public comment on kratom's potential for abuse and medical use, and they also directed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to provide an analysis justifying the scheduling of kratom. The public submitted over 23,000 comments, 99% of which opposed the ban. And after the FDA failed to submit their analysis by the expedited deadline, the DEA officially gave up.

The FDA was not as easily deterred, though, and they have continued to make repeated recommendations to schedule kratom. So far, the DEA has rightfully not been convinced by the FDA’s safety claims about kratom. Therefore, kratom remains legal today in most parts of the U.S.

State Level

Of course, each individual state has their own say on the matter, and there are currently five states where it is illegal to buy, sell, possess, or use kratom:

  • Alabama
  • Arkansas
  • Indiana
  • Rhode Island
  • Wisconsin

Vermont was previously on that list, but in 2023, the Vermont Department of Health granted a petition to remove kratom from their Schedule I listing. Other states may also soon follow Vermont’s lead and change course on kratom, as they are now realizing that their original ban was misguided and based on FDA disinformation.

Indeed, these state bans can be traced back to 2009, when it was sensationally reported that nine people in Sweden died from a powdered kratom product called “Krypton.” The FDA pounced on these reports and spread this negative information to the states, resulting in the six states listed above banning kratom between 2009 and 2016.

What the FDA did not disclose after it was discovered in 2011, though, is that the Sweden deaths were not caused by kratom at all. Instead, the deaths were attributed to a lethal dose of a chemical called O-desmethyltramadol, an opioid that is the main active metabolite of tramadol.

While pure kratom used properly is perfectly safe—as those in Southeast Asia who have used it for centuries can attest to—adulterated kratom products spiked with dangerous opioids are not. States are starting to wake up to the fact that the problem is not kratom itself, but rather adulterated products. That is where their legislative attention should focus when it comes to bans and regulations.

American Kratom Association legality map

The Kratom Consumer Protection Act

American Kratom Association logoThe American Kratom Association (AKA) is a nonprofit organization leading the way in kratom advocacy on behalf of the more than 15 million kratom consumers in the U.S. They have worked to oppose any efforts to ban kratom, and they are responsible for filing the Vermont petition that succeeded in getting their kratom ban reversed.

But they certainly aren’t stopping there. Not only is their goal to get all the other state bans reversed, but they also are pushing a more proactive legislative approach in order to keep kratom legal across the country.

To encourage states to adopt an alternative to a total ban, the AKA developed model legislation known as the Kratom Consumer Protection Act (KCPA). This legislation seeks to exclude kratom and its alkaloids from the state’s list of controlled substances. It ensures that this natural remedy remains legal and accessible to consumers in a safe and regulated manner, prohibiting any kratom product that is adulterated or contaminated with any dangerous non-kratom substance.

Regulations would require the following of kratom manufacturers:

  • Must follow current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMP)
  • May not alter the proportion of alkaloids in the plant
  • May not add any dangerous substances
  • Labeling must be accurate and compliant, with age restrictions included
  • Any therapeutic marketing claims must be supported by clinical trial evidence

The AKA hopes to get all 50 states to sign on to the KCPA, even if kratom is already fully legal in the state. Through lobbying and education efforts meant to disprove the myths, rumors, and misconceptions of kratom, the AKA has succeeded in getting most states to agree to review and strongly consider the KCPA.

Currently, a version of the KCPA has already been passed by ten states, with hopefully more on the way:

  • Arizona
  • Colorado
  • Georgia
  • Nevada
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Virginia
  • West Virginia

As state laws are continuously changing, it is important to stay up to date on the current legal status. Visit the American Kratom Association for a regularly updated map of kratom laws by state.

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