LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — A drug used for centuries in Southeast Asia is becoming increasingly popular in the Southland.
Some officials say kratom is addictive and dangerous but it's still legal to buy it in California, even for minors. Lawmakers in some states are currently proposing legislation to ban the drug completely.
"It can give you a happy, euphoric feeling…I definitely feel more energetic," Valencia resident Valerie Montes said.
Montes says she's been taking kratom several times a week for the past nine months to relieve pain from injuries sustained in a car crash.
"Kratom, for me, is a healthy alternative to pain relief, and it makes me feel better," Montes said. "I'm able to stay alert and be functioning without…feeling extra sleepy."
Doctor Cy Rangan, a medical toxicologist at California Poison Control, acknowledges that kratom is used to treat chronic pain and ailments but emphasizes using it responsibly.
"We have seen that, yes, it is something that has brought people to the Emergency Department, especially when people are taking it in combination with other drugs," Rangan said.
Kratom can be ground into powder, stuffed into capsules and sold in liquid form.
No prescription is required to buy it on the internet or at local smoke shops. Kratom is illegal in some Asian countries and regulated in Europe, however there's no law against using it in the United States.
According to some doctors, kratom is addictive, creating an opium-like effect some compare to heroin.
One kratom user, who asked not to be identified, says the drug was highly addictive: "You go without it for two days and you feel like death."
Kratom carries the risk of hallucinations, delusion and tremors.
"In lower doses it tends to have that stimulant effect as if you're taking a lot of caffeine, or maybe even taking an amphetamine type of substance," Rangan said. "It's where you have over-stimulation of the nervous system and other parts of the body, but after taking higher doses they get more severe alterations to their mental state."
The drug has been showing up all over Southern California under different brand names.
It's this growing popularity, and inevitable abuse, that has kratom on the Drug Enforcement Administration's radar.
"One thing that we're seeing as a concern, rather than using it as its pure substance, is it's being combined to be abused," DEA special agent Sarah Pullen said.
The DEA has placed kratom on its list of "drugs and chemicals of concern."
Nonetheless, users such as Montes say responsible kratom use can be extremely beneficial.
"The experiences that I've heard from my friends are positive ones, where it's helped them get off the pain medication, which has so many chemicals and creates so many other side effects," Montes said.
Unfortunately, there's limited research on kratom use.
If the DEA concludes kratom is a public health risk, the agency can request the Department of Health and Human Services, along with the Food and Drug Administration, to ban the drug.
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