Although the leaves of the Kratom (also called „Ketum“) tree have been used since a long time, they hardly have a history in terms of romanticization, politicisation, research, unlike other drugs such as Cannabis or Alcohol. The psychoactive leaves were (and are) traditionally chewed (more rarely smoked or a tea brewed from it) as a mood enhancer, by workers to stave off exhaustion, as a form of traditional medicine (see below), as a substitution for Opium. By people in Thailand and especially it’s southern part (on the Malay peninsula), and neighboring countries in Southeast Asia, where it grows naturally. Kratom was first identified by Dutch botanist Pieter Willem Korthals, in the 19th century, in the then Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia). He created it’s botanical name, Mitragyna speciosa. He was inspired by the form of the leaf, which reminded him on a bishop’s mitre.
After Korthals, an L. Wray was one of those who investigated this plant scientifically. Beside his own accounts about the use of Kratom in it’s area of origin, he sent samples of it to the University of Edinburgh, where David Hooper isolated the main alkaloid, mitragynine, from the leaves. In 1897 English botanist Henry Ridley recommended Katom/Mitragyna speciosa as a substitute for opium and opiates in the West. Ellen J. Field discovered and named mitraversine, from the leaves of Mitragyna parvifolia, a relative of Mitragyna speciosa. I. H. Burkill examined especially Kratom’s medical use. Botanist Raymond-Hamet also carried out work on Mitragyna species. By 1940 three other Kratom alkaloids in addition to mitragynine had been identified, others followed.
Chewing karatom leaves (called biak, gra-tom, Biak-Biak or Mabog there) was embedded in the culture of South Thailand (where buddhist Thai’s and muslim Malay’s live). In 1943, the government of Thailand prohibited Kratom, made it illegal to possess, cultivate or consume it. The background was this: Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram, contemporarily known as Phibun, Luang Pibulsonggram or Pibul Songgram, Prime Minister and virtual military dictator of Thailand under King Ananda Mahidol from 1938 to 1944, lead the country into wars with France and Great Britain (in the context of the 2nd world war, in which Phibun lead Thailand at the side of Japan). The government needed money for it’s war efforts. At the time, users and shops involved in the opium trade were taxed, kratom wasn’t. Therefore (and because of the comparable effects), kratom was a cheap alternative for many users. Declining revenues from the opium trade was the last thing the government needed now, in the face of the war. So they banned kratom, the competitor of opium.
This first ban of kratom (for economic reasons, not for health) was of importance, cause Thailand is something like the home country of the plant. Other states in Southeast Asia followed, in particular Malaysia. In Thailand, kratom is used illegally since. After the War, the Kratom Act was not enforced rigorously for many years, although eradication campaigns destroy(ed) kratom trees by burning forests. Kratom users are predominantly male; women in Thailand and the region rather chew betel nut, which has also psychoactive properties. If women chew kratom, then usually as a medicine, not for recreational purposes. In 1979, the punishment for kratom was reduced in Thailand, by categorizing it under Schedule 5 (the least restrictive and punitive level) of the Narcotics Act (along with cannabis and mushrooms). In recent years, even the decriminalization of kratom was proposed in Thailand, but due to the political crises in the country since 2005, the issue faded into background.
While kratom use has been an integral part of life in some Southeast Asian regions for centuries, in the West the plant has only recently begun to gain awareness. There, the knowledge was mostly limited to (some) ethnobotanists and pharmacology researchers. Kratom leaves became part of the ethnobotanical trade in Europe and North America in the 2000s. A large proportion of these leaves are exported from Indonesia to western countries and processed there. Globally, kratom still isn’t very widespread. USA, GB and Germany are among those states in which it is legal. In the west, it is sold via ethnobotanical shops and (e)mail order selling. Because of the intermediate trade (and profiteering), kratom is quite expensive.
There’s a controversy going on whether kratom should be considered as stimulant, drug or medicine; the delimitation here is not as clear as some believe to know. Other natural substances have been outlawed for no valid reason at all, and kratom could also become a victim to propaganda, despite it’s health benefits. In western countries, there’s a trend to prohibitions of kratom, a plant that was unknown there until a few years ago. The Transnational Institute has argued that while continued research is needed, the criminalization of kratom is unfounded and is based on economic control and disinformation. The criminalization of kratom has created numerous barriers for research, it’s effects are not well-studied. Kratom use is not detected by typical drug screening tests, but it’s metabolites can be detected by more specialized testing.
While the kratom tree has also blooms, the (green) leaves are the interesting thing on it. Fresh leaves are chewed, dried leaves are smoked, drunken as a herbal brew – or grinded (which creates a powder that can also be drunken down, brewed with hot water or eaten with yoghurt). In the west, usually the powder is the available product. Among the alkaloids of the kratom, Mitragynine is the most important, it is probably primarily responsible for the leaves‘ opioid effects. It behaves as a μ-opioid receptor agonist, similar to opiates like morphine. Kratom can help against fever, diarrhea, pain, premature ejaculation, opiate and alcohol dependence. To put it poetical, it has an „empathy“
The effects depend on type, potency, dosage, setting, blend, tolerance. There is the classification as per origin and the one as per the colour of the leaf vein. So, there are for example Borneo leaves with red veins and such with green veins. There are kratom leaves with red, green and white veins. The colour of the veins tells about the composition of alkaloids in this type; but the origin and the cultivation also affect the content of alkaloids. While the leaves with green and white veins are said to have a stimulating effect, those with red veins should be sedating. Thai, Maeng Da, Green Malaysian und some white types are said to help against depression. Basically, low doses take an activating effect, high doses function sedating.
Side effects associated with kratom use include loss of appetite and weight loss, delayed ejaculation, constipation and other gut related troubles, the darkening of the skin color of the face, and nausea (so called „woobles“; powder made from leaves from Bali is said to have this effect most likely). Escalation of frequency and dose as well as not addressing underlying problems lead to tolerance and a mild physical and mental addiction. Withdrawal is generally short-lived and mild, and it may be effectively treated with Loperamide.
Mixtures with kratom like „Krypton“ or „4×100“, used in South East Asia, are dangerous, because of the other ingredients. Other combinations, like with alcohol, are harmless in moderation. Kratom and opiates have the same potentiators, like tonic water with quinin.
Sources (partly used here):
S. Asnangkornchai & A. Siriwong (eds.): Kratom Plant in Thai Society: Culture, Behavior, Health, Science, Laws (2005)
Robert B. Raffa (Ed.): Kratom and Other Mitragynines: The Chemistry and Pharmacology of Opioids from a Non-Opium Source (2014)
Robert Weisman: Kratom: The Ultimate Guide to Unleash Power of Your Brain with Mytragina Speciosa (2015)
Jessica E. Adkins, Edward W. Boyer and Christopher R. Mccurdy: Mitragyna Speciosa, A Psychoactive Tree from Southeast Asia with Opioid Activity. In: Current Topics in Medicinal Chemistry 11/9 (2011)
Suwanlert M D Sangun: A study of kratom eaters in Thailand. In: Bulletin on Narcotics 27/3 (1975)
Oliver Temme: Alkaloide der Pflanze Mitragyna speciosa in Kratomzubereitungen. Medical Dissertation, University Greifswald, in German (2011). „The present publication shows methoths for the extraction of alkaloids from different matrices and for the identification and quantification of them using a HPLC/DAD and a GC/MS system. Further the alkaloid fingerprint of kratom preparations from different origins is described.“