Popular Herbal Addiction Treatment ‘Could Expand The Opioid Epidemic’

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Steve Birr Vice Reporter
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Federal regulators are drawing criticism over a warning issued last week by the Food and Drug Administration about an herbal supplement used to treat addiction that is linked to a number of deaths.

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a statement Nov. 14 that kratom, a powder made from a plant found in Thailand and Malaysia, carries its own addictive properties and severe risks. Kratom can be bought in smoke shops or gas stations and is brewed into tea as a way to reduce withdrawal symptoms from opioids, but the FDA says there is no scientific evidence showing it is a safe and effective way to treat addiction, reports My Palm Beach Post.

Products containing kratom are linked to at least 36 deaths in the U.S., according to data from the FDA. Critics of the FDA’s position note that research studies show an extract from the kratom plant can effectively ease withdrawals from addiction. They also claim it has a lower risk of death than Tylenol.

“It’s shown great results for detox and harm reduction in opiate users,” Justin Kunzleman, director of Rebel Recovery, told My Palm Beach Post.

Kunzleman is critical of the FDA’s stance on kratom, given their approval of opioid painkillers like OxyContin that were marketed as having little risk of addiction and abuse. He argues that the FDA “allowed drugs to go to market knowing they have a far greater risk than any proven to be associated with kratom.”

Federal regulators however are concerned by the lack of oversight of the substance. Officials at the FDA say calls to poison control centers related to kratom surged tenfold between 2010 and 2015. The substance, which the FDA warns has “similar effects to narcotics like opioids,” gives users a euphoric high that can lead to addiction.

While users say it can treat a number of ailments including chronic pain and fatigue, it can also cause seizures and liver damage.

FDA officials say roughly 340 million kratom shipments enter the U.S. each year and only a small fraction are being intercepted by federal drug authorities. Gottlieb petitioned Congress Nov. 14 to increase resources devoted to drug interdiction, including more agents at U.S. ports of entry and along the border.

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