This past summer, the US government caught everyone by surprise when it announced its intentions to add a new plant to its list of Schedule 1 controlled substances. This is the most restrictive class, which also includes LSD, marijuana, and heroin. The same country that’s been calling more and more openly for the end of the war on drugs while also slowly legalizing cannabis now has its sights on the leaf of a tree from Southeast Asia known as kratom.
A lobby quickly mobilized to force the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to back-step—however, while its status is studied further kratom is stuck in a grey area.
This attempt at prohibition, of course, has had the paradoxical effect of drawing the public’s attention to a little known psychotropic, one that, incidentally, is completely legal this side of the border.
Kratom’s active ingredient is mitragynine, its principal alkaloid. At low doses, its effects resemble those of cocaine or caffeine: euphoria, sociability, concentration, energy. But at higher amounts, kratom makes your thinking cloudy and the body feel heavier, giving morphine-like side effects. Traditionally, in Thailand, the leaves are chewed while working, sort of the same practice that Peruvians have with coca leaves. In Canada, the leaves can be found in powder form.
The leaf’s defenders have invoked its sedative properties in arguing against the DEA’s decision. Some patients seeking to reduce their opiate consumption find that kratom is much less taxing for the body than fentanyl or oxycontin. People with tendencies toward either depressiveness or hyperactivity respond to it just as favorably. And some people with heroin addiction even use it to calm their withdrawal symptoms.
Anecdotal evidence shows so far that it’s not known for certain whether daily use leads to dependence. The symptoms and severity of withdrawal vary depending on the testimonials: some classify them like those of caffeine and other associate them with opiates.
Not for Human Consumption
I googled “Montreal” and “kratom,” and the website Madam Kratom popped up right away followed by a few Kijiji ads from a private importer.
The diversity of Madam Kratom’s online catalogue left me somewhat confused, so I decided to stop by in person at the address mentioned on the site. I imagined a dispensary where different varieties of kratom were elegantly shelved, with advisers at the ready to answer a neophyte’s questions. Instead, I was met in the lobby of an old industrial building by the “Madam” in person. She seemed a bit stressed out, and she spoke as if covertly, even though what we were doing was legal in the end. (Note: She doesn’t usually sell to retail customers in person, and says that people are better off ordering from the website.) We wound up getting along just fine, and she went back to her office to nab three packets: the more “relaxing” Super Borneo Red, the reputedly energizing White Borneo, and the more “balanced” Maeng Da Thai, (three 25-gram packets, for $40 each, tax included).
When I asked about proper doses, she cut me off. “Sorry, but the internet is your best friend,” she said. In fact, she went on to explain to me that kratom is “not for human consumption” (an old trick used by dealers to absolve themselves of the responsibility for the choices users make). I left shortly thereafter, leaving behind one of the most bizarre drug transactions of my life.
Integrating a New Psychotropic into One’s Life Isn’t So Easy
Kratom’s effects can vary wildly depending how it’s consumed.
Due to the plant’s paradoxical effects—that it’s effectively both an upper and a downer—the end result comes down to the proper amount, which varies depending on the individual’s tolerance to opiates. I also learned that when taken directly, the powder was better metabolized than when it’s infused in a tea. This means that the ideal quantity for an exhilarating herbal tea can send you into an opiate-like trance (followed by a solid hangover of several hours) if it’s mixed with juice or chocolate milk.
I also had to go through an acclimatization phase. All the online reading of testimonials was not enough to prepare me for the nausea and headaches that went along with my first three tests. But I pushed on with no regrets.
Eventually, I landed on a mixture that worked best for me: a tea made with two tablespoons (about five grams) of the powder on an empty stomach. The herbal tea sharpens your mind, elevates your mood, alleviates your hunger and gets you set for supper. The effects fade when eating. Kratom now slips occasionally into my end-of-day habits and I find it’s a fine replacement for the traditional 5:30 after-work brew—particularly as the days get colder.
I can’t say I noticed any real differences between the varieties. And up to now I haven’t suffered any adverse side effects. Kratom is rarely on my mind and I could absolutely get by without it if it got too complicated to acquire. When you get right down to it, kratom is a psychotropic with a number of quite interesting properties, not the least of which is that it’s totally legal.
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This article originally appeared on VICE Quebec.