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Is Kratom the new coffee?

Will the Future of Kratom Be as Impactful as Coffee?

You may be surprised to learn that historically, coffee has been the source of great controversy. Those in power have attempted to ban coffee throughout history, and historians have often cited coffee as a major cause of political revolutions, even recently contributing to the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere. Coffee played a major role in the early history of the United States – where taxes on coffee and tea spurred the Boston Tea party. In addition, the Green Dragon Pub and Coffee House was a meeting place for early revolutionaries.

Kratom is in its beginning stages of mass popularity and controversy. Therefore, one has to wonder at the parallels between kratom and coffee. First, let’s look at plant classification. Surprisingly, kratom is in the coffee family. Although kratom is considered to be a tree, and coffee is considered to be a bush, they both look very similar, with broad evergreen leaves, and both are flowering plants. Pharmacologically, at least in lower doses, coffee and kratom also have similar effects. The main active ingredient in kratom, mitragynine, similarly to the active ingredient in coffee, caffeine, has a stimulant effect. And since kratom leaves can also be ground and brewed by steeping in hot water, like coffee, the parallels are remarkable.

People of all walks of life enjoy coffee’s mood enhancing benefits. The coffee plant is indigenous to what is known as the “cradle of humanity”, Ethiopia. It grows wild in Ethiopia, while kratom naturally grows in Southeast Asia and Africa. However, the four African species of Mitragyna (kratom) were devoid of mitragynine, but rich in other alkaloids (Shellard 1983).  Humans did not utilize coffee as a beverage the way we do today, until around the 1400’s when Ethiopians discovered roasting coffee beans. Prior to this discovery, coffee beans were eaten as a high fat and energy boosting snack or the leaves were used to brew a weak tea. Once Ethiopians discovered roasting coffee beans, they were brought across the Red Sea to Yemen by Arab traders. Quickly the drink spread throughout the temples as a holy ceremonial drink.  Shortly after, the secular world took hold of the brew, and coffee houses took the muslim world by storm.

Coffee Houses Changed History

Coffee houses were the first social venues where people from all social classes could have conversations, play games, share ideas and intellectual discoveries.  At this time in history, the Arab world had traditionally been the center place of knowledge and learning. Arabic discoveries in mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy were brought north by European intellectuals, who learned these ideas in Arabic centers of learning – but also in coffee shops. Arabic knowledge – and coffee – spread northward and were a major contributing factor in the Enlightenment.

The Beginning of the Coffee Controversy

Coffee shops were also a place to discuss and exchange political ideas and foment political revolutions. When the governor of Mecca heard people were talking about him in a bad light, he tried to ban coffee, claiming it was a drug and causing people to act in a lewd fashion. This was the start of coffee’s reputation for being a  trouble-making social brew. The Sultan of Cairo was his boss and reversed the ban, because he loved the beverage.

The Spread of Coffee

When the Turks conquered the Arab world they inherited coffee and incorporated it into their culture. The Ottoman Turks spread coffee far and wide, guarding their precious commodity by par boiling beans (making the beans infertile) before importing. Indians credit a Sufi mystic named Baba Budan for introducing coffee to India. He is said to have smuggled fertile beans to India. The Dutch discover the plants while in India and starting growing coffee in greenhouses in Amsterdam. The Dutch transported the coffee plants to their colony in Java, enslaving the local natives into forced cultivation. By 1683, Mocha and Java beans were the most sought after coffee beans and poised to conquer the European coffee market.  The Venetians modernized coffee as we know it today by adding milk and invented the process of making espresso. Will some genius in a hundred years from now create a new way to make kratom much like turning ground coffee into espresso? During coffees rise in Italy, the Vatican believed coffee had negative connotations due to its association with muslims. A priest tried to ban it, but when Pope Clement VIII tried it, he baptized the brew and reversed the ban, according to folklore.

Historical Attempts To Ban kratom

While Westerners have not heard about kratom until recently, kratom has been used in Thailand for hundreds of years (although Western historians only became aware of its use around 1890), mostly by peasants as a stimulant to make it easy to work in the heat, and as traditional medicine for ailments.  Attempts to ban kratom began in the 1890’s, mostly due to the opium trade in which Thailand’s government was complicit.  In 1943, Thailand banned kratom because people were using it as a substitute for opium and to deal with opium withdrawals. Sound familiar? Kratom is now legal in Thailand once again as of 2017, as it was for hundreds of years prior to the opium cartels.

Attempts to Ban kratom in the West

Kratom Arrives at the Crossroads of an Opioid Epidemic

People have discovered kratom in the West and are using it both for it’s multiple pharmacological effects: as a stimulant like coffee, as a calming agent, and as a treatment for pain and opioid withdrawal. This last category of use causes the most controversy.  The current opioid epidemic has its roots nineteenth century when opium and coca leaf derived products were being sold in pharmacies, even while raw opium addiction was a world-wide problem. When opium became illegal under the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914, opium addicts turned to the stronger and easier to smuggle narcotics marketed by drug companies like Merck and Bayer. Merck began marketing morphine in 1827, and Bayer produced a derivative of morphine called Diacetylmorphine  – commonly known as Heroin. These substances were not only more addictive than opium, since they were far more powerful, they carried much more risk of death by overdose. They also became illegal, but only if you did not have a doctor’s prescription. So they were sold by pharmacies and hospitals by prescription, but also on the street by drug dealers. Since the early history of opioids on the streets and in pharmacies, drug companies have developed synthetic opioids, one of them 30-50 times more powerful than heroin.

The Sackler Dynasty and the Oxycontin Epidemic

The Sackler dynasty’s ruthless marketing of painkillers has generated billions of dollars—and millions of addicts, as documented in this  excellent article in the New Yorker – “The Family that Built an Empire of Pain.”  Flash forward to 2018; the kratom industry is now a billion dollar industry in US, mostly due to the current opiate crisis. Thousands of people are using this medicinal plant to manage pain and opiate withdrawal. Since 2016, drug companies have been sending teams of lobbyists to push for kratom to be banned, but so far have had only limited success. Scott Gottieb, current head of the FDA, is trying for a complete ban. But Scott Gottlieb has been criticized for being a big pharma shill, after receiving millions in speaker fees from pharma companies.  In order to silence critics as a nominee, he offered to recuse himself for one year from making decisions that involved any of the 20-odd pharma companies he received payments or did work for. Well that year is up, and kratom is already on his radar screen, as he releases announcements attacking kratom as a dangerous substance. Be sure to read Scott Gottlieb bio on wikipedia; it is a real eye opener.

Misinformation and the Attempt to Ban kratom

Officials, political leaders, and law enforcement have cited kratom in a small number of overdose deaths. In each of these cases, however, morphine or other opioids have also been in the system of the deceased. Opioids are known to be “central nervous system depressants” – meaning they slow breathing and heart rate so much that it can cause death. The suppression of the nervous system is the major cause of death via an opioid overdose. Kratom is not a central nervous system depressant. Therefore the risk of overdose is far less. It is ironic, and one could say almost unconscionable, that there is an effort to ban kratom, when it is the only known opioid that does not stop your breathing or heart upon overdose. Therefore kratom has a tremendous potential to provide pain relief in a much safer fashion than opium derivative drugs. This also makes kratom very dangerous to the drug industry, as kratom has the potential to safely replace a large number of pharmaceuticals that have billions of dollars of sales a year. 

Congressional Attempts to Ban kratom

Congress has been working on different versions of the Synthetic Analogues Act for years. Ostensibly, this bill claims to deal with the problem of synthetic drugs that are manufactured chemical derivatives of natural substances or derivatives of illegal drugs that can be sold legally, because they have chemical alterations. The biggest example of this is Bath Salts, which contain a powerful synthetic derivative of the natural stimulant plant Khat.  Although the bill contains “Synthetic” in the title, it also can ban any natural substance that is deemed to have a similar effect to a banned substance – i.e. an opioid. This potentially includes kratom, because the active ingredient in kratom binds to the opioid receptors in the brain. Kratom – as sold – is not a synthetically derived substance, but made from the ground leaves of the kratom tree.

Should Our Government Decide What Natural Substances We Consume?

Any American that believes in freedom, should oppose the Synthetic Analogues Act. It bypasses the currently existing laws for scheduling drugs which currently require peer-reviewed science and expert opinion, and concentrate that power in the hands of one man, the head of the Department of Justice. That person could decide, for whatever reason, that practically any natural substance should be illegal, whether it’s dangerous or not. There goes natural medicine, homeopathy, herbal teas, etc. Obviously this is an extreme, but our system of laws is meant to protect us from what could happen if that power is given to government and the extremes that could occur. You see examples of it throughout the world and history, and you can see what happens when a basically harmless natural substance gets banned.

Where Will kratom Stand?

We started with coffee, it’s stimulant affect, and it’s beneficial history for mankind. But remember, we were told coffee was bad for us for many years. Only recently have we learned that the antioxidants of coffee far outweigh any negative effects, and provide many health benefits. Other beneficial plants like marijuana, a common medicine in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and a staple crop, became banned.  We now know some of marijuana’s potential as a medicine, and that it is a powerful anti-cancer agent. Had we researched this potential earlier, countless lives could have been saved. Opium and other poppy derived drugs were banned, but proliferated as they were used increasingly in hospitals, prescribed by doctors, and also sold on the streets. Kratom is the latest natural plant to enter into the fray of a host of dangerous opioid narcotics. While marijuana is on its way to full legalization, and coffee is still a staple of our diet and culture, kratom has just entered the fray. And just like all these substances mentioned, it finds itself in a host of controversy, with an uncertain future. But with the current opioid epidemic, and the potential of kratom to save lives as an alternative pain killer, and as a way for people to get off of opioids, as Americans, we really need to think for themselves on this one. Who doesn’t know someone who has suffered from opioid addiction? How many know someone who has died? I know several, personally. We hope this blog post helps those who are evaluating kratom, to place it in a historical context and to see the parallels of misinformation and fear-mongering that have been to both coffee and cannabis. And with that in mind, we hope the reader will be better equipped to make the right decision. America can not afford to lose another potentially life safe drug.

 

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