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Going Green Illustration by Alex MacAskill.

Going Green

Kratom could help with the Canadian opioid crisis–but only if regulators get on board.

The first time I encountered kratom, I was sixteen. The lunch bell had just rang, sending students flooding out of the school and into the surrounding strip mall, the parking lot suddenly a sea of lumpy backpacks, teenage angst and awkward attempts at fashion. Every day at this time, we descended like a swarm on the rows of shops: falling over each other at the convenience store to pump French vanilla from the coffee machine, yelling over paper-plated oily slices at the pizza joint. The landlord of the plaza had recently leased out one of the storefronts to a headshop, which was probably irresponsible given the proximity to a school, but greatly appreciated by me nonetheless. As I had done often since the beginning of the semester, I weaved clumsily through the mass of teenagers and made my way toward the store, its sign with graffiti lettering a lighthouse beacon guiding me.

The musky aroma of incense washed over me as I pushed open the door. I had come in for rolling papers, but as I made my way over to the counter, a bag of green powder labelled  “kratom” caught my eye, nestled between packs of salvia in a glass display case.  “What’s that?” I asked the salesperson, who shrugged ambivalently. “Dunno, we just got it in recently.” I pulled out my phone and searched the name on Erowid, the drug encyclopedia and trip report forum, which let me know that the powder came from a leafy tree grown in Southeast Asia, but had little else to share. “How do I take it? What’s it supposed to do?” The salesperson shrugged again, but a shaggy older man sidled over from the other side of the shop. “Let’s try it and find out,” he said, pulling out his wallet to pay. I had no idea who this guy was, and, like most adults who seek out the company of teenagers, he had a bit of a sketchy aura pulsing around him. But since he was paying, I decided to go along with it. Outside, we sat together on the curb, rolling the powder into a joint and lighting it up, an adult man and a weird teenager smoking a headshop-mystery-substance at noon on a weekday. It tasted awful, and then nothing happened. The disappointment settling over me soon started to turn into awkwardness about the whole situation, so I stood up unceremoniously and waved a brief goodbye, heading back to school. As I would later find out, you’re not supposed to smoke it.

If your only encounter with the substance is through strip mall headshops, you might not know that kratom, or Mitragyna speciosa, has been consumed throughout Southeast Asia for centuries. Its use was first reported in 1836, but likely goes back further. Traditionally, the leaves of the tree were harvested, chopped up or dried out and then either chewed or brewed into a tea. It was taken by manual labourers to fight fatigue or improve productivity, given to morphine or opium addicts to treat dependence, and even used during religious ceremonies. Doses vary wildly depending on who is taking it and their tolerance threshold, but studies report most people's doses ranging from approximately one to six grams. Smaller doses feel vaguely stimulating, almost like caffeine, while higher ones have a more relaxing and soothing effect. 

Kratom started to become popular in the West around the early 2010s, right as the opioid crisis started to result in unending waves of overdose deaths. It was imported from growers in places like Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, then sold in headshops, corner stores and online. It wasn’t illegal per se, but operated in a grey market enabled by regulatory uncertainty. 

In Canada, things that you consume, whether they are classed as food, drugs or health products, are meant to be regulated by Health Canada, the Food and Drugs Act or the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Kratom didn’t fall under the latter, meaning that it was not illegal to own or use, but merchants needed to request authorization from Health Canada in order to legally sell it as a consumable health product. Health Canada hadn’t authorized the sale of any kratom products for human consumption, so to sidestep this kratom was often presented as an ambiguous aromatherapy or incense product. It used to be everywhere, bags of powder or bottles of capsules shelved between 5-hour Energy and gas station dick pills. But in the late 2010s, Health Canada finally took a stance on the products: they wanted them gone.

Instead of working with suppliers to properly authorize and regulate the sale of kratom, Health Canada decided to take a more aggressive route. Authorities had first become aware of kratom entering Canadian borders in 2012, but formal kratom seizures from headshops and convenience stores started in 2017, when Health Canada initiated half-a-dozen raids on stores across the country. Who knows why they sprung into action so suddenly, after years of quietly allowing the grey market to subsist; there had been no significant incidents involving kratom in the general population. Maybe bureaucracy just takes a while to rev itself into motion. Around this time, I noticed that many shops quietly stopped selling kratom products entirely. Suddenly, the spot on the shelf between kava and valerian root was conspicuously empty. Slowly but surely, it disappeared from physical stores entirely, although sale of the substance was never officially prohibited by Canadian drug law. Now, the internet is the most reliable way to purchase kratom in Canada. Though it is no more legal to sell online than in stores, a quick search brings up a number of sellers with a range of different products: a breadth of strains, variety packs, extracts and capsules. 

The name of a kratom strain consists of two things: a colour— white, red or green, and sometimes yellow or gold—and shorthand for a place of origin, like Malay, Borneo or Bali. You have White Thai and Red Bali. It’s hard to say whether the distinctions in colour are actually meaningful or lead to different effects, but sellers claim that white strains are better for stimulation, reds are better for killing pain and greens sit somewhere in the middle. As is true any time that someone is trying to sell you something, you should probably take what they’re saying with a grain of salt. You’ll also frequently see strains labelled as “maeng da,” which is Thai for “pimp grade.” Though sellers claim that these are the highest-quality strains, it’s really just a marketing term. Unlike the strict labeling regulations surrounding the names of products like champagne and parmesan, nothing prevents kratom sellers from flexing “maeng da” without fulfilling the proper categorical requirements. 

A strain like maeng da is supposed to come with high amounts of mitragynine—kratom’s most important chemical, an alkaloid that binds to our opioid receptors and brings about the desirable, pain-killing effects seen at higher doses. Critically, the way mitragynine acts on these receptors is different from the effects generated by opiates, such as morphine and its derivatives. If something like hydrocodone knocks you aggressively onto the couch in a blissful stupor, kratom gently kneads your shoulder and suggests that it might feel nice to sit down. Mitragynine’s broader receptor-binding activity means that it’s less toxic than opiates, especially at lower doses, and that it avoids the same issues of severe, quickly-growing tolerance and dependence (which is not to say that it can’t be habit-forming). 

These factors have made kratom a popular tool for opiate addicts seeking to taper off, or quell cravings for, far stronger and generally more dangerous drugs like heroin, fentanyl, oxycodone and hydrocodone. On Reddit, recovering addicts fill the popular r/Kratom forum with stories of success and sentiments of gratitude: “Kratom gives me what I need but without the whole throw my life away—addicted—shame cycle,” writes one kratom user, whose use of the drug seems to have helped them achieve two months of sobriety from fentanyl. “Two years ago I was homeless  … kratom saved my life,” notes another commenter. At a time when twenty people per day die from opiates in Canada, any potential tool for harm reduction becomes invaluable. And yet the country continues to shut the door on kratom’s capabilities, opting to criminalize the grey market rather than ensure that the supply is safe and regulated.

Kratom is relatively safe, as drugs go. A study of calls to the BC Poison Control Centre found that between 2012 and 2019, there were only thirty-two calls involving kratom, with zero cases resulting in deaths and only one requiring hospitalization. Concurrent exposure to a different drug was a factor in 40 percent of calls. Similarly, in the US, less than 1 percent of drug overdose deaths involved kratom between 2016 and 2017, and almost all of the kratom-related incidents involved the presence of other drugs. 

Many of the issues around kratom’s safety arise from the fact that without regulation, there’s nothing overseeing the validity of kratom merchants’ claims or the processes they use to manufacture their products. A seller can say that their kratom has a certain percentage of mitragynine, but if the consumer doesn’t happen to have access to a lab that can test for that—and most don’t—it’s difficult to know whether it’s true. This lack of oversight can have serious consequences, like when a seller’s kratom is contaminated. In 2020, US Customs and Border Protection seized half a ton of kratom coming in from Canada that tested positive for salmonella (it’s unknown how many in Canada may have suffered ill effects from the bad batch). 

Accurate information on dosing or warnings about effects is also not easily accessible without diving into community forums like Erowid or Reddit. Sellers don’t directly provide any info about safe consumption, as they’re not supposed to be selling kratom for consumption in the first place. When consumers don’t have easy access to that information, it’s easier to take more than intended, or more than you need. Taking excessive amounts of kratom can result in symptoms like nausea, vomiting and fatigue. 

In 2018, after a year of sporadic raids and regulatory confusion, Health Canada classified kratom as a natural health product following consultation by a board that included the Canada Kratom Association, a BC-based non-profit that advocates on behalf of kratom users. Though it seemed that this scheduling would result in the creation of a legal kratom market, Health Canada still hasn’t authorized any uses for kratom, and hasn’t actually authorized any kratom products for sale. This means the drug remains stuck in limbo, with the grey market continuing to operate with neither official endorsement nor full criminalization. If kratom were to be saved from its limbo and placed onto more solid ground, it could take root and blossom into its full potential, perhaps into something that could help save a lot more lives.

I didn’t take kratom again until adulthood. In my early twenties, pain appeared in my body without any corresponding injury—it was just suddenly, viscerally there, building a nest for itself in between my shoulder blades, reaching out its talons and wrapping them vice-like around my neck, digging its heels sharply into my hips. Like an animal that found a warm place to roost, it set up without any intention of leaving, and the task of how to dislodge it soon turned into the task of how to live alongside it. When I was prescribed opiates after an unrelated medical procedure, the drugs became my favourite double-edged sword, giving me brief windows without pain while sowing destruction elsewhere. After a few months, I wanted to swap the pills out for something less damaging, and impulsively placed an order for some kratom with an online seller. That evening, a friend came over to my apartment, the unassuming bag on the table between us, the words “not for human consumption” written across the front. Ignoring the warning, my friend plunged into a brief demonstration; pulling out a short tea mug, filling it with water, dumping a small spoonful of the powder into it and mixing vigorously. 

The resulting cocktail was a vaguely disgusting muddy tea, which fell onto my tongue like the bitterest, earthiest matcha I’d ever drunk. As the evening drifted into night, my pain lifted slightly, and I felt a bit more sociable and at ease, but after saying goodbye to my friend and getting into bed, I concluded that the experience wasn’t really comparable to taking opiates. It had none of the waves of pleasure and euphoria—but it also mercifully lacked the feverish cravings for more, endlessly more. The trade-off was worth it, and following that night, I continued to use kratom on and off; to mitigate my pain and my desire for stronger drugs, sure, but also just to relax and socialize, a cup of kratom in my hand instead of a beer bottle. Millions of others across North America have done the same. A study has found that while only 0.7 percent of Americans use kratom, that figure rises to 10 percent among those with an opioid use disorder. In the Canadian Alcohol and Drugs Survey for 2019, the last year for which data is available, 0.5 percent of respondents reported taking kratom at some point in their life, suggesting that at least 150,000 Canadians had used kratom as of that year. That number is probably modest; who’s going to truthfully tell the government exactly what drugs they’re taking?

The series of Health Canada raids only lasted from 2017 to 2019, and they seem to have since given up on dismantling the market—or else are satisfied with how thoroughly they have stripped it back. In 2018, after raids on two headshops in Edmonton and a series of convenience stores across the Greater Toronto Area, public health experts condemned the aggressive crackdown on kratom. “If there’s a drug out there that people are using, and anecdotally they’re saying this is actually helping people wean off of opioids, we really need to seriously say, ‘OK, let’s create a little space to use this,’” Scott Bernstein, a senior policy analyst with the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, commented in a May 2018 interview with the Toronto Star about the seizures. Another expert in the same article suggested that legalizing and regulating kratom would be a more responsible approach, rather than criminalizing its sale and driving it further underground. When this happens, substances become less safe.

A model for what a coherent kratom market might look like can be found south of our border, in Georgia. In 2019, the state’s General Assembly ruled that all kratom products needed to be clearly labelled with the amount of mitragynine contained within, the ingredients used in the manufacturing of the product, and directions for safely and effectively using the product. Another crucial aspect of these new regulations was that the assembly would work with different local, regional and federal agencies to conduct further research into how kratom could be used to help treat opioid addiction, noting the relevance of such research to public welfare. In Thailand, kratom was criminalized in 1943 but has long been used as a herbal remedy and energy booster regardless; in 2021, the government finally admitted their mistake and removed it from the Narcotics Act entirely. The secretary-general of the narcotics board remarked that this decriminalization would have a positive impact on drug abuse in general: “truck drivers who used to rely on methamphetamine to stay alert may no longer need to abuse the narcotic, as kratom is now a legal alternative.” As well as moving forward with decriminalization, the narcotic board also approved funding for ongoing research into how opiate addiction can be treated using mitragynine compounds.

There is significant anecdotal proof of kratom’s usefulness for addiction, a centuries-long history of safe traditional use and a documented low risk of overdose and adverse effects. But even if we put all that aside, there remains an obvious argument for bringing about a legal kratom market: wide swaths of people are already using, and will continue to use, kratom products to their hearts’ content. Grey markets are an expression of a thriving user base, and not simply a fad that will fade out. And so, Canada’s health authority has two pathways to choose from. They can continue to alternate between ignoring and criminalizing the sale of kratom, stirring unnecessary stress and frustration within consumers and merchants. Or they can sit down and listen to what kratom users, researchers and sellers have to say, and work with the community to create a market resplendent with products that are helpful, effective and accessible. Their choice will not have any bearing on whether or not a kratom market exists in Canada—evidently it already does—but it will influence the relative safety of the market. 

In the evenings, I send a last email or jot down a few last words to round out a sentence, and then I stand up from my desk, my shoulders burning with pain, the muscles crackling loudly as I roll them back. I walk out of my bedroom-office and over to the kitchen, where a large pouch slouches on the counter, ziplocked shut, its insides full of dark green powder. I reach into the bag and carefully spoon out a little mound of it to dump into one of those tall, sporty plastic water bottles, looking like I’m pouring creatine into a gym drink. For the next half hour I sip from the drink while picking up around the apartment. Nothing much happens. My muscles relax a little, I feel a little sleepy, my throat gets a little drier. For all the crackdowns and raids, the flip-flopping on regulation, the defining feature of kratom as a drug might be that it’s profoundly unexciting.  So what’s the big deal? ⁂

Nour Abi-Nakhoul is the associate editor of Maisonneuve, as well as a writer and fact-checker whose work has appeared in Catapult, SHARP, the Cut, Chatelaine and more. Her debut novel, Supplication, is out on Penguin Random House Canada's Strange Light imprint in May 2024