MADISON – Assembly lawmakers on Wednesday abandoned a scheduled vote on a bill that would legalize an herbal supplement after objections from law enforcement officials and medical doctors.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who supports the legislation, said Wednesday he didn’t agree with their concerns but acknowledged it was in limbo and may not have enough votes to pass before taking it off the calendar permanently.
Under the legislation, the extract known as kratom would have no longer been considered a controlled substance in Wisconsin — one of few states that bans the product.
Derived from the leaves of an evergreen tree native to Southeast Asia, kratom acts on opioid receptors in the brain and is sold as a supplement, most often in capsule or powder that can be mixed with liquid.
In small doses, kratom acts as a stimulant. In large doses, medical experts say it makes users high.
Kratom users swear by its ability to curb pain, fatigue, post-traumatic stress and addiction to opioids. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and medical doctors say the unregulated drug is unsafe and unproven.
U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, a Democrat who represents the 2nd Congressional District, backs its legalization.
“As a Member of Congress, I have worked with federal representatives in both parties to continue the research and legal use of kratom due to its promising help in a number of health conditions as well as its ability to help many people overcome addiction,” he wrote in a Dec. 6 letter urging state lawmakers to support the bill introduced by a bipartisan group.
“I’ve been moved by the many, many personal stories of the benefits of kratom from people across the nation.”
Bill author Rep. Dave Murphy, R-Greenville, said in testimony during a December public hearing on the bill that other studies have concluded that kratom is an effective natural alternative to opioids.
“The ability for individuals to legally utilize kratom to alleviate their opioid dependency is a critical next step for the Wisconsin HOPE agenda,” Murphy said, referring to a package of laws passed in recent years to curb the use of heroin and opioids.
But David Galbis-Reig, a medical doctor and president of the Wisconsin Society of Addiction Medicine, also told lawmakers kratom is “neither safe nor effective” to help curb opioid addiction in a letter to the Wisconsin Medical Society regarding the legislation.
“For far too long, persons with OUD (opioid use disorder) and their family members have been misled into believing that kratom is a safe and effective treatment,” Galbis-Reig said. “… There are indeed safe and effective FDA-approved treatments for OUD; kratom is neither safe nor effective for this condition.”
Traditionally used for centuries in rural Thailand and Malaysia, kratom has gained popularity in the United States to treat anxiety, depression and chronic pain, as well as managing opioid withdrawal. Data from the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that two 2 million Americans use kratom.
It’s legal — but unregulated — in most states, although not in Wisconsin. But the federal government has raised concerns about addiction to and abuse of the substance.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration announced plans in 2016 to make kratom a Schedule I drug, meaning it had no current medical use and a high potential for misuse. The agency reversed course after their plans garnered industry backlash and pushback from the public.
In 2017, the federal Food and Drug Administration issued a warning about the substance, saying there wasn’t enough evidence of its useful properties and that side effects, including seizures, liver damage and withdrawal symptoms, could be dangerous.
A 2019 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention linked 91 deaths in the U.S. to kratom use between July 2016 and December 2017, though most who had died also had other drugs like fentanyl and heroin in their systems.
Last year, the federal government weighed recommending to the World Health Organization that kratom be banned globally, but the WHO declined in December to consider a ban, calling instead for more surveillance of the substance.
Research about kratom’s possible benefits and potential for misuse is still limited.
Researchers from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine compiled findings in early 2020 from 2,700 self-reported users of the substance and found about 4 in 10 respondents were using it to treat opioid withdrawal. Of those, 35% reported going more than a year without taking prescription opioids or heroin.
The same study found about 13% of respondents met some of the criteria for a kratom-related substance use disorder, with 3% meeting criteria for moderate or severe substance use disorder. Comparatively, between 8% and 12% of people prescribed opioids became dependent on them, according to data from the U.S. National Institute for Drug Abuse.
Wisconsin-based law enforcement groups are also urging lawmakers to abandon the bill to legalize the product.
“At a time when so many Wisconsin communities are dealing with the devastating effects of opioid abuse, why would we legalize a dangerous substance, with links to opioid addiction and death, and that lacks any medically approved FDA-approved uses?” members of four law enforcement groups wrote to lawmakers in a Feb. 16 letter.
Vos, R-Rochester, said Wednesday he believes the law enforcement and medical officials are wrong in their views of the supplement.
“I believe they’re wrong,” Vos told reporters on Wednesday. “Forty-five states already have no restrictions on kratom.”
Vos said Wisconsin lawmakers “inadvertently” banned kratom in 2013 in a law aimed at curbing synthetic marijuana.
“Ten years later, there has not been an outbreak of arrests of people using kratom, which supposedly is illegal in our state,” Vos said.