According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the last decade saw an alarming rise in the use of recreational substances.1 There was an escalation not only in the use of the more well-known street drugs (cannabis, stimulants, opiates, and hallucinogens), but also an exponential increase in the abuse of novel psychoactive substances. Although most health care providers (HCPs) are at least relatively familiar with some of these designer drugs—often synthesized analogues of common street drugs—region-specific herbal products with psychoactive properties are now entering the market worldwide. Certainly, the cause of this increased use is multifactorial: Ease of access to these drugs and ambiguous legality are believed to be among the largest contributors. Infrastructure established through globalization promotes easy drug transportation and distribution across borders, and widespread Internet use makes knowledge of and accessibility to such substances exceedingly simple.2,3
In particular, widespread online access has permanently altered the acquisition of knowledge in all realms—including drug use. Although Erowid Center remains one of the oldest and best-known of the “dark Internet” websites and bills itself as providing “harm reduction,” others have cropped up online and disseminate information about many forms of potentially psychoactive substances. Despite these websites’ purported raison d’être, recent studies have demonstrated these sites’ efficacy in promoting drug use under the guise of safety, particularly among adolescents and young adults. Among these is a qualitative study by Boyer and colleagues of 12 drug users admitted to a pediatric psychiatry unit. Through extensive questioning about the patient’s digital habits, the researchers demonstrated that the majority of subjects used these websites and as a result either increased their drug use or learned about (and tried) new substances!4
One drug that has benefited from globalization and the Internet is kratom (Mitragyna speciosa korth). This formerly regionally confined herbal psychoactive substance is native to Southeast Asia, where it has been used (and abused) for centuries as a mild stimulant, to prevent opiate withdrawal, and for recreational purposes. In recent years, kratom has been marketed as a psychotropic drug and is increasingly popular in the U.S. and in the United Kingdom.2,5,6 In the U.S., this poses a problem for HCPs who often are unaware of this plant’s existence, much less its abuse potential or health effects.2 Also known as ketum, kakuam, thang, thom, or biak, kratom is marketed in stores and online as a cheap, safe alternative to opioids.
Although considered a “substance of concern” without any approved medical use by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), kratom is not a regulated or controlled substance in the U.S.3 In the past few months, out of concern for public safety, the DEA placed a temporary ban on kratom. The agency’s move was followed by a substantial negative reaction from kratom supporters and was quickly rescinded. As of September 2016, the DEA does not have a timetable for banning or scheduling the drug.
To that end, users consider kratom a legal high, and it is easily purchased online. A 2010 study in the United Kingdom examined websites where kratom and many other quasilegal substances (including Salvia divinorum and legal precursors to LSD) could be purchased for an average of £10 (about U.S. $13).5 This study’s authors also noted a significant lack of product information on these marketplaces. As these products are not overseen by any regulatory body, the risk of overdose or adulteration is extremely high.2,3,6-8 In fact, Krypton, a product sold online, was found to be adulterated with O-desmethyltramadol—the active metabolite of the synthetic opiate tramadol—and implicated in at least 9 deaths.7
This article presents a case of kratom abuse and will outline a brief history, the pharmacologic characteristics, clinical presentation of kratom abuse, and conclude with an overview of the treatment of kratom-related illness and evaluation of potential toxic sequelae. In light of the rapid proliferation of kratom in the U.S., a basic working knowledge of the drug is quickly becoming a must for federal HCPs.
At his employer’s request, a 33-year-old married man presented to his family physician for a worsening of his uncontrolled back pain from a herniated lumbar disc resulting from a motor vehicle collision 3 months before. At his physician’s office he stated, “I don’t care if I live or die, I’m tired of the pain,” and “I’m going to go off on somebody if I can’t get this pain under control.” He also endorsed having auditory hallucinations for several years and a history of violence and homicide. The problem arose precipitously after he thought that he was abusing his opiate medication, and it was discontinued. The patient was transferred to the local hospital and admitted to the psychiatric service for his suicidal ideations and risk of harming self and others.