Psychotropic Plants

Kratom | Can the Psychoactive Leaves Treat Opioid Addiction?

Native to the tropical forests of southeast Asia and Papua New Guinea, kratom (Mitragyna speciosa) is a plant that’s highly valued by some and highly controversial to others. It has a rich history of use within many cultures that span the islands and countries of its native habitat, including Brunei, Myanmar, Thailand, and Indonesia.

With its potent effects, kratom is used medically and also as a recreational herb, with kratom bars found across the world. Chewed, brewed, or powdered, the leaves contain active compounds that can produce strong effects.

A shopfront with the name, "CBD KRATOM, Cannabis dispensary".
A shop in New York specializing in cannabis and kratom products | Photo by Tdorante10 on Wikimedia Commons

What are the active compounds in Kratom?

The most potent compound found in kratom is an alkaloid known as mitragynine. In relatively low doses it can produce a euphoric high that some people liken to coca. However, in higher doses, it can have a sedative effect.

What effect does Kratom have?

It’s a member of the coffee family, and like coffee, it has stimulative properties. However, the mitragynine found in kratom can have strong psychoactive effects.

In small doses, the effects of kratom involve a very mild, stimulating high, with common symptoms like nausea, delusion, drowsiness, and irritability. However, in high doses symptoms can include strong hallucinations and seizures. In extreme cases, users may experience damage to the liver, and cardiac, respiratory, or thyroid issues.

Large kratom leaf (Mitragyna speciosa) | Photo by Uomo vitruviano on Wikimedia Commons

It can also have strong sedative effects, reducing pain perception and promoting relaxation. Many people turn to kratom as natural pain relief, but further study is needed on the safety, addiction possibility, and effects of long-term use, etc.

Does Kratom have medical potential?

Like the muscimol in fly agaric and kavalactones in kava, kratom may have the potential to treat anxiety, depression, or PTSD. With its similar effects to opioid drugs, however, kratom is often used as a herbal pain relief medication.

Dried Kratom leaves about to be brewed into a euphoric tea | Photo by Coaster420 on Wikimedia Commons

Can kratom treat opioid addiction?

Kratom is currently being researched as a treatment for opioid withdrawal. It can activate the same receptors that opioids do. So, many believe it could imitate opioid drugs (like oxycodone or hydrocodone) and help people reduce their dependency. Some studies suggest however that people can then experience withdrawal symptoms from kratom. However, it’s an area that needs further study.

Cultural symbolism of Kratom

In areas where kratom is native, it has been entwined with local life for social and also spiritual purposes. The plant has a long history of use as traditional medicine. Its pain-relieving effects were well known, and leaves were frequently turned into healing treatments.

In Thailand, extracts were used to treat pain, respiratory illnesses, and also intestinal issues like worms. Within Malaysia, it was also used as a replacement for opium.

The leaves were thought to increase sexual desire because of their euphoric and stimulative properties. Again, because of the stimulating effects, it was frequently consumed by southeast Asian workers as an energy boost.

Because of its psychoactive effects, kratom was used as an entheogen in religious ceremonies too.

Is Kratom legal?

Like coca, peyote, and other plants with psychoactive effects, kratom is heavily regulated. In some states and countries, however, there are less severe rules in place. For example, the use, ownership, and sale of kratom is banned in the UK, Ireland, and Malaysia.

Powedered Kratom | Photo by Ingenium on Wikimedia Commons

Alternatively, in Thailand, after being banned for several years, kratom was legalized in 2021. In the US, the legality of kratom can change between states and even cities. It’s regulated but legal in most, but illegal in Alabama and Vermont, etc.

What does Kratom look like?

Kratom is an evergreen tree that can grow up to 25 meters in height. The leaves are dark green, pointed, and oval-shaped with prominent red veining on the underside. When flowering, you’ll see small rounded clusters of tiny flowers, with the whole inflorescence resembling a small yellow firework.

New dark olive leaves are sprouting from the growing tip of a small kratom plant.
Young kratom plant | Photo by ThorPorre on Wikimedia Commons

Where does Kratom grow?

It can be found growing in tropical forests and clearings in countries like Papua New Guinea and Malaysia. To thrive it needs a humid climate, nutrient-rich soil, and dappled sunlight.

Conclusion

Kratom has long been used in traditional medicine, but it is still warily treated by regulatory boards because of its psychoactive effects. Ultimately, the plant needs more scientific research to understand the risks involved. That includes whether it can be safely used as herbal medicine, be relied upon as a treatment for opioid dependence, or safely enjoyed recreationally.

Featured Image: Photo by Uomo vitruviano on Wikimedia Commons

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