Centre County lawmaker calls for Pennsylvania to regulate herbal supplement kratom

A state Democratic House member is calling for the state to add kratom, a herbal supplement with FDA concerns, to Pennsylvania's list of controlled substances. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

A controversy over an over-the-counter herb that has drawn federal scrutiny has reached the Pennsylvania state House.

Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Centre, announced Friday he is introducing a bill to regulate kratom — a substance from a southeast Asian tree’s bark and leaves that can be a stimulant in small doses or ease pain in higher doses.

A memo issued to fellow lawmakers this week seeking support was titled “Save lives. Protect families. Preserve Pennsylvania. Ban kratom!” But Conklin told the Capital-Star his goal is to regulate the substance to prevent it from being cut with potentially dangerous impurities.

“All we’re trying to do is make sure the consumer themselves know that when they take [kratom] they’re safe,” Conklin said. 

His bill would designate kratom as a controlled substance and give the state more power to regulate its sale, distribution, and production. Details of the regulations would be hashed out in the future through committee hearings and the legislative process.

Kratom consumers say the herb boosts mood and energy, fights anxiety and stress, and serves as a step down from opioids or other heavy duty narcotics.

Kratom’s active ingredient is mitragynine, which can only be found in a tropical tree grown in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea. The word itself comes from Thailand.

A 2016 report from the the American Kratom Association, an industry group, found that three to five million people use the substance. The Botanical Education Alliance conservatively estimated a minimum of $1.1 billion in revenue from kratom sales nationally in the same report.

Since at least 2012, the federal Food and Drug Administration has begun to raise concerns around kratom, comparing its effect to opioids, claiming potential for addiction, and tying it to overdose deaths.

“While it is important to generate more evidence, there is evidence that certain substances found in kratom are opioids and data suggest that one or more may have a potential for abuse,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottleib said in a statement last September.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released this week linked 91 deaths in 27 states to kratom over an 18-month period, according to the Associated Press. But in a little more than 92 percent of the reported deaths, other drugs were present in the deceased system.

A HuffPost report also questioned kratom’s role in overdose deaths, pointing instead to risk from mixing it with other substances.

Still, some concerns are close to home. For example, a Chester County family is suing a kratom distributor for a fatal 2018 car crash by a member of the family who drank kratom tea before hand.

Conklin’s own concerns were piqued when Centre County’s district attorney brought the drug to his attention.

A release Thursday from the kratom industry group said that the problem lies not with natural kratom but with products that are “chemically altered, synthetic or synthetically enhanced” to increase their effect on consumers.

The association instead is asking for regulations on synthetic producers to safeguard consumers.

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