BANGKOK, Thailand — As illicit drugs go, Southeast Asia’s leafy plant “kratom” is hardly ideal for thrill seekers. Those who chew its sour-tasting leaves catch a rush that nulls pain and jolts the senses like double shots of espresso. After about 20 minutes, the effects have faded.
Yet media portrayals in both the US and the plant’s native Thailand typically depict a drug that’s either mysteriously menacing or downright satanic. A headline in the top-selling paper Kom Chad Luek screams: “Staggering kratom-drunk kid kills parents horrifically.” Other outlets report tales of Islamic militants downing a brew made of kratom, Coca-Cola, cough syrup — all flecked with the ashes of cremated corpses.
In America, where kratom (pronounced krah-TOHM) remains legal in most states but stuck on a federal watch list, a Louisiana state senator told a regional TV news station this year that kratom “could wind up killing a child or blowing a child’s mind forever.” An ABC News affiliate in Michigan warns ominously that “what you don’t know could hurt your children.” Most reports casually mention kratom alongside “bath salts,” a totally unrelated synthetic meth-style stimulant banned last year by the federal government.
But as America grapples with a kratom scare — Indiana has banned it and lawmakers in other states hope to follow suit — Thailand is moving in the opposite direction.
Justice Minister Chaikasem Nitsiri is pushing senior officials to end a 70-year-old ban on kratom enacted under a dubious pretense: kratom once helped opium users kick addiction in an era when the government raked in lucrative opium taxes.
In interviews with the domestic press, the minister has said the leaf could help wean Thais off meth, which has exploded in popularity across Southeast Asia.
The legal status of kratom is now under review in Thailand. “There’s never been a single death associated with kratom,” said Pascal Tanguay, a program director with the Thailand offices of PSI, a Washington DC-based global health organization that promotes harm reduction among drug users. “People have been chewing this for thousands of years with no cases of overdose, psychosis, murder, violent crime. Never in all of recorded history.”
Tanguay, who is participating in the Thai government’s legal review of kratom, is confident that the drug’s prohibited status will change. Options include making kratom available only by prescription, decriminalizing small amounts and total legalization.
Kratom has long flourished in Thailand’s humid south, a region largely inhabited by Muslims. The leaf is traditionally regarded as an organic painkiller and pick-me-up for farmers working the fields. Even after the 1943 ban, the kratom prohibition was loosely observed.
“There’s a gentle rush to it but it doesn’t impair your abilities,” said a longtime Bangkok resident who’s used the drug countless times but asked to remain anonymous. “Everything feels a bit rosier. But it’s nothing even close to amphetamine or marijuana. No crash, no comedown. Chewing more doesn’t help: you can’t ever get past a plateau so it doesn’t seem like you could overdose.”
In the most recent United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reports, kratom is listed as the nation’s third most-popular drug after meth and pot. But it is a very distant third and several urban Thais under 30 quizzed about kratom by GlobalPost had never even heard of it. The drug is strongly associated with Muslims — who can turn to kratom even after swearing off booze — and much older Thais. “To the kids,” the kratom user said, “it sounds like hillbilly stuff.”
From near obscurity, kratom surged back into Thailand’s headlines shortly after an early 2000s rebirth of a violent jihadi movement along the Malaysian border. This crusade to turn a Connecticut-sized area of Thailand into the world’s newest Islamic state has left roughly 5,500 dead since its resurgence.
The kratom law offers a convenient pretext for police looking to raid Muslim villages in search of insurgents. In modern Thai media reports, kratom is often cited as the key ingredient in a regionally popular drug cocktail called 4x100, which is reported as the rebels’ favored brew.
The 4x100 brew is a mixture of boiled kratom leaves, Coca-Cola and cheap cough syrup. Tanguay, who tried it while investigating kratom use for the Transnational Institute, said 4x100 brings on heavy drowsiness.
“Chewing the leaf made me feel like I’d had two cups of coffee,” he said. “Drinking the tea mixed with cough syrup put me to sleep very quickly. It was three in the afternoon ... and I had difficulty keeping my eyes open.”
Tanguay’s research — which included more than 50 interviews with drug users — suggests reports of insurgents zonked out on 4x100 are unsubstantiated. “They’re screening recruits for drugs,” he said. “They look for clean, focused extremists.”
Nor could he turn up any evidence that 4x100 often contains a range of household toxins such as mosquito repellant, industrial paint used to mark highways or other foul ingredients cited by the Thai press.
A 2010 research paper published by Thailand’s Royal Police Headquarters — citing media reports — explained that 4x100 brewers add “whatever makes them drunk, i.e., mosquito coils ... herbicide or even the powder peeled from the inside of fluorescent light bulbs.”
The study — one of few available in medical literature — focuses on the death of a kratom user whose blood also contained a “toxic lethal range” of methadone and the opiate tramadol. A Swedish study into multiple deaths attributed to kratom also ruled that the fatalities were, in fact, owed to tramadol intoxication.
“Paint from the road. Ashes from dead bodies. It’s all hearsay propagated by the media,” Tanguay said. In 2011, he said, a drug user told him, “‘I’m not going to go scrape paint off the road that won’t make me high and will harm my body even more.’”
Kratom is currently illegal in Australia, Myanmar and Malaysia and tightly restricted in many parts of Europe. Those located far from the plant’s native region — equatorial parts of Southeast Asia — aren’t able to follow tradition and chew the leaves, which quickly wilt and lose their potency once picked.
American users instead must rely on powdered kratom. The drug is typically acquired through the same channels used to procure deadly synthetic drugs such as “bath salts”: mail order via through the Internet.
Sold under titles such as “Lucky Kratom” or “Maeng Da” (the Thai word for both “horseshoe crab” as well as “pimp”) the kratom brands are largely imported from Indonesia and are not approved by the Federal Drug Administration. A 2011 National Institute on Drug Abuse-funded study states that “the natural history of kratom use, including its clinical pharmacology and toxicology, are poorly understood.”
Even if Thailand’s Ministry of Justice is able to legalize kratom, it faces a dubious public. Since the late 1990s, the nation has been reeling from the spread of cheap meth tablets, a social blight akin to America’s 1980s crack epidemic. Tough-on-crime rhetoric plays well with voters. A recent poll by a Bangkok University research unit depicts a nation divided: 52 percent worry legalization could lead to kratom misuse; 48 percent view kratom to a harmless traditional medicine.
“Right now, it’s easier for kids to start off on amphetamines than kratom,” Tanguay said. “It should be the other way around. If you can’t control your market, don’t cut out your weaker drugs."