Caleb Brown: This is the Cato Daily Podcast for
Wednesday, November 23, 2016. I am Caleb Brown. The DEA is working
to quickly, and if they can, quietly, ban a plant called kratom.
There haven’t been any clinical studies of the plant but it has
shown promise at helping people with opioid and other addictions.
Andrew Turner is a veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress.
He’s a former guard at Guantanamo Bay and a current user or kratom.
He’d like to see it stay legal. We spoke last week.
Andrew Turner: Kratom is a - it’s a tree. The
way you get it here, in the U.S., is a crushed leaf, powdered form.
But it starts out on a tree in Southeast Asia, there’s farmers in
Indonesia, and Malaysia, and Vietnam that pick the leaves, dry them
out, break them down into their natural form of you know, as just a
powdered or crushed leaf form so you can make it into a tea and
ship it over here to the U.S. And the tree is in the same family as
the coffee tree, but it’s not exactly the same. It’s a similar tree
Caleb Brown: So in traditional medicine it’s
been used for some time, but it’s people just chewing the leaves.
Andrew Turner: Thousands of years.
Caleb Brown:…like a cocoa leaf.
Andrew Turner: Yes sir.
Caleb Brown: So what’s the difference between
you take that and turn it into a powder?
Andrew Turner: Well, so, because it’s got to be
imported here to the U.S., the natural form typically seems to
break down to where it doesn’t, over time, like when they ship it
over here it just doesn’t have the advantage of being able to pick
it off the tree and chew it like you could if you were in Indonesia
or Malaysia and so they have to dry it. They found they’ve had to
dry it and break it down into this form so people can actually
Caleb Brown: Alright so what has the DEA done
with respect to this drug and why do you believe they’ve done what
Andrew Turner: So at the beginning of September
the DEA put out a proposal for a ban to make kratom from completely
legal to a Schedule I substance, along with heroin, marijuana, LSD,
and said it has no medicinal benefit, so we’re going to ban it. And
at the time most of us didn’t even realize how big of a movement of
people out here in America are consuming kratom in one form or
another, either in tea or just in its dried form. And there was
just this public backlash, you know. There was - we - there was a
group of us that had off and on, been kind of smaller activists
working at the state level to keep states from banning it, you
know, and maybe putting some type of regulations like age limits in
place for purchase, but not outright banning it. And they’ve been
pretty successful, so it started with a march at the White House.
There was about 400 of us out there, several of us spoke. And that
snowballed into a YouTube and Twitter movement, and next thing you
know the media kind of was looking around saying hey what is kratom
and where are all these people coming from? You know, and doctors
and scientists that have been researching kratom were stepping up
and saying you can’t do this, you can’t stop our research. We
actually are looking into it and it looks like there’s a lot - even
with anecdotal evidence there’s tens of thousands of people saying
this is helping me with having an overall sense of wellbeing.
Caleb Brown: Alright, so what - who uses
kratom? And what do they use it for?
Andrew Turner: Yeah, you know it’s - the who -
anybody. It could be anyone. And even I didn’t realize the extent
of that until the day we had a march the first week of September at
the White House and I looked around and there was opiate addicts,
and there was former heroin addicts, and there was, you know,
people that had been addicted to pharmaceutical medications. And
there was people like myself that deal with service-related PTSD
and chronic pain. I mean it was just amazing the amount of people
that take it for - to where it helps them manage other issues that
are going on in their life, you know, with physical and mental
Caleb Brown: Alright, so some people have used
it to step down off of opiates.
Andrew Turner: Right.
Caleb Brown: So what kind of numbers do you
sense there are out there for people who have been able to sort of,
because that’s obviously a very difficult addiction to break.
Andrew Turner: Sure. You know it’s - so
initially no one really knew how many people had tried kratom, and
it was kind of - everybody that I’ve talked to, you know, online
and in person, on the phone, that have taken kratom, they all kind
of went I only thought I was the one. I thought there was only a
few of us and it was some kind of quiet thing, but the last count
from the Botanical
Educational Alliance who is - they work with a lot of the
vendors here in America to make sure there’s some kind of standards
out there for what’s coming in and making sure they are protecting
the consumer like myself. From sales numbers just in the last eight
to ten years, they are talking three to five million people in
America. And this is, again, the numbers are telling them this. The
sales numbers from the vendors, three to five million people in
America have tried kratom for one reason or another. And it’s just
amazing the thousands of people that are talking about having been
heroin addicts, having been prescription opiate addicts. And now
especially at this time when we’re talking so much about opiate
addiction and the deaths that are happening and fentanyl and
carfentanyl and all these other things on the street that are so
bad, the DEA out of nowhere wants to ban kratom and their claim is
there was fifteen deaths. That’s it. Fifteen. Not this year, not in
three years. Just fifteen, here in America, and when it comes out
about it, fourteen of those had other things in their system that
do cause respiratory distress and would have killed these people.
None of this made any sense.
Caleb Brown: So, one of the things that it’s
important to note about moving a drug or a chemical from legal
status to Schedule I is that the research does become virtually
impossible without specific dispensation from the DEA.
Andrew Turner: Right.
Caleb Brown: So, what happens now, for
Andrew Turner: So not long ago I was on a press
call with Dr. Andrew Kruegel from Columbia who has got probably one
of the most up-to-date, current research people out there. He’s
working with a team from the Kettering Cancer Institute, and even
they said they would have to stop researching kratom because just
to have it in the forms they did, because they extracted certain
alkaloids out of the plant material, just to have it in that way,
they would have to install a $10,000 safe right off the bat in each
lab that they are keeping these substances in. And that doesn’t
mean that they get a permit to study it. That’s the start. For
every lab that they are studying it in they have to have that safe.
And then from there they have to find an approved vendor, but the
DEA doesn’t have any, because you can’t grow this in America. This
isn’t like marijuana where, you know, they could grow it in
greenhouses. This is something where we, for any kind of a viable
crop, maybe Hawaii, maybe Guam, maybe Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands,
but it’s got to be a very warm, very humid, and somewhat windy
environment, it seems like, to get the alkaloids to where they sit
right in this plant. And it’s not just one or two, it’s twenty-plus
alkaloids kind of coming together in a symbiotic nature to do what
they do and they don’t know enough about it, but they’ve even, you
know, on that press call one of these doctors, he’s a research
scientist and they said you know this could be, we could be on the
edge of the Holy Grail for pain management and the DEA wants to
stop that completely.
Caleb Brown: This seems to be a similar story
to what happened with LSD in the 1960s. It was a chemical that went
from being completely legal and was used in research to being a
Schedule I drug. It’s similar to pot in the sense that the only
research that was allowed to be done was extremely limited. There
were a few people in the United States that were allowed to have
marijuana legally with a federal license and with MDMA, ecstasy,
which is, as a research matter, has shown remarkable promise for
treating people with PTSD and other things. And I’m trying to put
the best spin on it from the DEA’s perspective, which is let’s
crack down on it first and then go through this fairly long process
of seeing what this drug is actually capable of doing for people
who are suffering.
Andrew Turner: This is really the first big
time they’ve used emergency scheduling like they did for a plant.
Back in ‘84 the Crime Control Act changed the Controlled Substances
Act to allow emergency scheduling to be put in place. Emergency
scheduling means virtually they can ban it overnight. They don’t
have to take any public comment, they don’t have to listen to
anyone, and then after the fact they can issue permits if they want
to. And if you can prove that you meet, you can jump through all
the hoops required, and if you can’t then at the end of two years
they can then come up and say well, nobody has done any research,
hey Congress, ban it now. Make it permanent, let’s get rid of it.
And that’s what’s happened a lot of times but now we’re in an even
bigger situation that Congress, the President, all the heads of
these agencies keep coming and saying we’ve got to do something
about this opiate problem. And then they’ve got something staring
them right in the face that people are saying, you know, not one or
two. And granted a lot of this is anecdotal evidence. You know, I
made videos for YouTube just to show people my conditions when I
don’t take kratom for an extended period of time, what happens.
Caleb Brown: Talk about that.
Andrew Turner: Well I deal with PTSD from my
service, I deal with chronic pain from degenerative disc disease,
but I deal with a fairly rare movement disorder called Meige
syndrome. Meige syndrome causing dystonias in my face and neck and
over a period of time they will flare up so bad, kind of in
conjunction with my anxiety issues from PTSD with my pain, that it
gets to the point where I look like a bobblehead doll. My jaw will
extend to a point where I can’t barely speak and I lose the ability
to speak. And that’s, you know, I’m not a good-looking guy, but
I’ve got a great voice and I’ve always been able to speak and talk
about things and I love to talk to friends and neighbors and, you
know, at some point I plan to even run for city council in one of
the towns right outside of D.C., and to not be able to speak for a
period of time and it went for several months at one point when I
was going through doctor’s care at the VA, where I could barely
make functional words because of the dystonias, the tics in my face
and jaw were so severe that it was almost just seizing my face.
Caleb Brown: And kratom helps.
Andrew Turner: Surprisingly it does. It doesn’t
fix things, it doesn’t cure anything. It just - it helps with my
anxiety, it helps with my pain. It makes everything a little more
manageable. I still have pain every day. It’s not like I - I don’t
take kratom multiple times in a day, I take it in the morning when
my pain is most severe and I take kind of a slower-acting strain of
the plant that kind of makes me comfortable throughout the day and
because of that help with the anxiety and the pain, my tics kind of
went away. They are not - they’re still there. I still feel the
spasms in my face and my neck and my jaw move a little bit, but I
can actually control it, whereas I couldn’t - I had no control over
it before and, you know, if I get off kratom for an extended
period, because every month I stop for four days and I do a cleanse
and I just kind of make sure that, because I also don’t want to,
you know, there is risks with it. There is people that have had
withdrawal issues with it, there is addiction issues. That happens
with anything we ingest that you can have some risks, but with this
the benefit for me outweighs the risks immensely, and as long as
I’m careful with it and I act responsibly about it, you know, I get
so much benefit in my life whereas all the prescription medications
I was taking for an extended period, they were just all the side
effects. I wasn’t getting any benefits.
Caleb Brown: Assume that the DEA is going to
move ahead with scheduling, putting it on the schedule, somewhere.
Where should they schedule it, in your view?
Andrew Turner: They shouldn’t. Because if you
schedule it, it’s done in America because we - the pharmaceutical
companies don’t want anything to do with it. So what do we do?
Because to be on the schedule, between II and V, is going to
require somebody to market it as a drug that they can prescribe
out. But the pharmaceutical companies don’t want that. They don’t
want it. They’ve got a couple patents for a couple of the
alkaloids, but they haven’t been able to develop any kind of a -
something that they can put out there and run through the FDA
process, and so at this point if they go to schedule it, it’s done
in America. It’s gone. For all intents and purposes I’ll have to go
across the border to Canada where it’s completely legal still.
Caleb Brown: So at any level, the DEA’s
involvement, pretty much at any level, takes it out of circulation
for people who need it?
Andrew Turner: Well, you know, something like
say, years ago pseudoephedrine was a huge issue. And instead of
putting it on the controlled substances schedule, they said hey we
need to do some regulations. Let’s make sure the vendors that are
selling it are licensed in a certain way, let’s make sure that the
product is tested. Let’s make sure there is an age limit. You know
they do the same thing with anything that people can make, you
know, methamphetamines from, there’s regulations that the DEA and
FDA can shoot for. The DEA and FDA could go to Congress and say
help us create - because Congress is ready. There was fifty members
of the House that signed a letter to tell Chuck Rosenberg stop.
There was over ten members of the Senate that created - that helped
us get this stopped, open up a public comment period, and pursue a
better route. And they could go to Congress and say you know what,
we could fix this. We could do something better. Let’s create some
type of legislation you know, that can address something like this,
a plant. Because the emergency scheduling was built, even the
congressmen that had created it in the ’80s, it was for analogues.
It was for stuff that could be changed so quickly that they had to
battle it quickly. You can’t change kratom overnight. You know, for
a commercially viable crop, it takes 30 to 50 years to grow. And
that’s another scary part is, you know, they talk about all the
slash and burn going on in Indonesia and Malaysia for the palm oil
industry, well that’s what’s going to happen when the kratom plants
are gone and the American market dries up. A lot of those farmers
are going to go in and just cut that down and the next thing you
know that’s palm oil, too. And they’re not understanding that this
affects so many people in so many places in a weird way over this
simple arbitrary thing that makes absolutely no sense, but it might
make sense to somebody. There may be somebody that’s benefitting by
a kratom ban.
Caleb Brown: Andrew Turner is an activist, a
veteran with post-traumatic stress, a former guard at Guantanamo
Bay, and a current user of kratom, which he’d prefer to see remain
legal. Subscribe to this podcast at iTunes,
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