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The DEA is postponing its ban on the opiate-like plant kratom

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DEA will give the public and the FDA a chance to weigh in

Wikimedia Commons/ThorPorre (CC BY 3.0)

Kratom, a Southeast Asian plant with opiate-like effects, won’t be banned — at least, for now. The Drug Enforcement Administration announced today that it will postpone its controversial decision to temporarily classify the plant as a Schedule I controlled substance. Instead, the DEA now plans to give the public six weeks to comment on the proposed scheduling before making a final decision.

Kratom won’t be banned, for now

"We still believe that kratom is dangerous, it’s harmful, we’ve given that notice to the public — but yet we want to open up a dialogue with the public so that this process, any process that moves forward, can be transparent and the American public can be part of that," Russ Baer, a spokesperson for the DEA, told The Verge.

Kratom has been consumed for centuries as a tea or powder. Small doses reportedly cause a similar feeling as caffeine, but higher doses can act like opioids — although the drugs have very different molecular structures. Researchers think that the psychoactive compounds in kratom might be promising starting points for new, less addictive painkillers. And people who take kratom report that it helps minimize the symptoms of opioid withdrawal and aids recovery.

The DEA said its decision at the end of August to classify two of kratom’s psychoactive compounds as Schedule I drugs by September 30th was to "avoid an imminent threat to public safety." The agency cited 15 deaths linked to kratom in the last two years as rationale — although it’s unclear whether the deaths were due to the compounds in kratom, unintentional ingestion of other drugs contaminating the kratom, or mixing of kratom and other substances. The DEA says that the toxicology reports for those deaths reflect overdoses associated with the active ingredients in kratom, and often included other substances as well. However, they believe that kratom was a substantial or significant contributing factor.

Schedule I is the strictest classification reserved for drugs

Schedule I is the strictest classification reserved for drugs like marijuana, heroin, and psychedelics that the agency says have no acceptable medical use. The scheduling restricts the public, and often researchers, from accessing those drugs. Scientists argue that there hasn’t been enough research done on kratom to say whether or not it has any medical value, and a Schedule I classification would effectively prevent them from finding out.

The DEA’s decision to ban kratom sparked a public outcry. A petition to the White House quickly gained over 140,000 signatures. And in September, 51 senators wrote a letter to the DEA arguing that banning the drug would exacerbate the nationwide opioid epidemic.

Today’s announcement from the DEA shouldn’t be considered a blanket approval of Kratom, Baer at the DEA told The Verge. The agency will give the public until December 1st to comment online or by mail. It also has requested that the Food and Drug Administration speed up its scientific and medical review of kratom. Once the DEA has this information, it could decide to issue another temporary ban on kratom or it might permanently schedule the drug.

"We think it’s reasonable and prudent to take a couple steps back," Baer says. "The driving question is whether or not [kratom is] a medicine."