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Sales of herb spark hope and concern

Folk remedy for pain narrowly avoided being classified as Schedule 1


As Gian Pieroni and Pablo Espadero made plans to open an herbal shop in Littleton recently, it briefly looked as if they would not be able to sell one of their main products.

That’s because the Drug Enforcement Administration announced plans to place an herb called kratom on the list of Schedule 1 narcotics, drugs that the agency says have no medical use and high potential for abuse. Other Schedule 1 drugs include marijuana, LSD, ecstasy and heroin.

Then, in October, the DEA withdrew the plan, announcing that it would receive a scientific and medical evaluation from the Food and Drug Administration as well as a scheduling recommendation.

The listing would have effectively banned kratom, which is made from the leaves of the mitragynine speciose tree native to southeast Asia, where it has been used as a folk medicine for hundreds of years. In that region, the fresh leaves are often chewed, but users in the U.S. typically buy it in a powdered form that can be mixed into beverages.

In a notice posted in the Federal Register in August, the DEA said that kratom presented “an imminent hazard to public safety.”

The announcement drew outcry from the kratom users — many of whom say it provides relief from chronic pain and can be used to treat opiate withdrawal symptoms and has minimal side effects.

“It was a blatant overstep,” Pieroni said, saying that the DEA had not received any scientific input before drafting the plan.

Pieroni and Espadero, who own Colorado Herbal Imports on Santa Fe Drive, said their immediate thought was that the DEA was trying to ban kratom at the behest of the pharmaceutical industry.

“A replacement for opioids was starting to materialize in the market,” Pieroni said.

Although people do use kratom recreationally — depending on dosage, it can be either a stimulant or a sedative — Pieroni said most people who have come into his store looking for it are interested in it for pain relief of to wean themselves off stronger prescription painkillers following surgery. Pieroni’s store is not alone in the area in selling the product — multiple south metro tobacco shops carry kratom, according to their websites.

Republican U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah wrote a letter asking the DEA to postpone the ban. The letter was signed by senators from both sides of the aisle, including Colorado Democrat Michael Bennet. Another letter was penned by Democratic U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, and another was signed by 51 representatives, including two from Colorado: Republican Scott Tipton and Democrat Jared Polis.

The Drug Policy Alliance — a New York City-based organization that generally opposes the “war on drugs” — also opposed the DEA plan, saying that it would criminalize users and hamper any research into kratom’s effectiveness.

But Littleton City Councilmember Debbie Brinkman believes kratom sales are a cause for concern.

“Certainly a substance like kratom deserves a serious look,” said Brinkman, who opposed a failed ordinance to legalize recreational marijuana sales in the city earlier this year. “Anything that is addictive, has opiate-like effects and is completely unregulated should be illegal.”

Dr. John Douglas, executive director of Tri-County Health Department, agrees that kratom is a concern, but he’s not ready to pronounce it a threat to public health.

“It would be great if we had better research into this,” said Douglas, whose agency serves Arapahoe, Douglas and Adams counties.

For now, though, it’s “consumer beware,” Douglas said.

“I think like every product, the question is: What’s the risk-benefit equation?” he said. “We don’t know.”


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