ABC15 Investigates: Kratom- Killer drug or lifesaver?


For years, doctors and researchers have been looking for an alternative to opioids. ABC 15 is learning more about what some say could be a good one; that's if enough research is done. The controversial drug kratom is not approved by the FDA, but it hasn't been banned in North or South Carolina.

One local woman says she doesn't know what she'd do without it.

"I'm able to clean my house, I'm able to take my kids out, I'm able to do things, where beforehand, I couldn't make dates because I didn't know how I was going to feel on Thursday," said Gini Downey, who uses kratom for pain relief.

She'd been suffering.

"I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in 2007 and then a few years after that, down the line, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis. I was on you name it, amount of pain medication. Fentanyl, morphine, tramadol, norco, vicodin, muscle relaxers," she said.

After 11 years of being dependent on opioids, Gini now gives kratom the credit for a better quality of life.

"I'd made peace that I was going to be in pain forever, I could just deal with it, but I was able to actually sleep and I felt my body actually almost feel like what it's like to not be in pain. I was like, 'This is what a normal person feels like when they wake up in the morning or goes to bed at night.'"

Kratom is a plant that grows naturally in Asia. It's legal and you can take it in many forms and get it in many places, like online, in smoke shops and kratom pharmacies, but it's still controversial.

"I think the biggest thing is that it's not a safe alternative, and that just because it's legal doesn't mean that it's something healthy for us. There are lots of other countries that are making it illegal, and there are states in America right now that are trying to make it illegal," said Jessie Marlowe, prevention director at Shoreline Behavioral Health.

The FDA is concerned kratom is addictive, and no one can answer the question "Just how dangerous is kratom?"

"I don't think anyone really knows, yet," said Dr. Gerald O'Malley, director of toxicology at Grand Strand Medical Center.

People have died after using the drug.

"Yes, they've also used other drugs before they died, so we're not clear how much kratom had to do with it, we just know that it could be dangerous," said Dr. Jon Pangia, senior medical director at Grand Strand Health.

Private groups are researching what exactly is in kratom. FDA officials say they’ve evaluated peer-reviewed research and will continue to warn people against the use of kratom, but again, it's not banned.

"The fact that they haven't banned it outright or made it illegal I think says a lot about the interest of the federal government in perhaps investigating kratom as a way for people with chronic addictions to get some relief," said O'Malley.

The American Kratom Association claims millions of Americans use kratom. Some to fight pain, depression or anxiety, and some for pain relief. Dr. Pangia says it could be huge in the fight against the opioid epidemic.

"We are desperate for a better pain medication, we're desperate for a better ways to treat people with opiate addiction, so if this turns out to be something useful in that sphere, I believe there will be a quick adoption," said Pangia.

Research to find out though, could take more than a decade and cost millions of dollars to get FDA approval. So for now, if you do take it, you need to do your own research.

"It's a legal substance, it is a drug, and so I think it needs to be treated like a drug. I don't think you need to use kratom or any other substance without letting your doctor know that you're doing it," said O'Malley.

Downey says she's been kicked out of support groups and shunned by people for using kratom, but she says her doctor supports her using it, as long as it's working and she's healthy. Her goal now is letting people know that what works for her could work for them too.

"It really made all the difference. I hope someone would do the same," she said.

Downey is a member of the American Kratom Association. She and several others recently sat down with Congressman Tom Rice's staff manager to tell their stories so Rice will think of them if faced with legislation about kratom.

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