As touched on in the previous kava conversation, kava and kratom are two different herbal products with distinct histories and pharmacological effects. While kava is primarily a social beverage (and kratom is not), both kava and kratom have been appreciated as herbal alternatives to traditional pharmaceuticals.
Kratom in particular has been reported by users as a safer alternative to opioids or as an aid in overcoming opioid addiction. However, there is a knowledge gap regarding kratom because there have been no well-controlled clinical trials on kratom. Further, the controversies surrounding kratom as well as its possible classification as a Schedule 1 substance (Schedule 1 drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined by the federal government as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse) would only make it more difficult to research kratom and continue to deter institutions from doing so. Similar issues previously happened with medical marijuana where its classification as Schedule 1 drug long impeded research in spite of its potential as a “promising alternative to opioids or other medicines.”
Kratom is relatively much more controversial and, treated relatively more harshly by institutions such as the DEA and FDA, than kava.
Regardless of their differences, kava and kratom have and continue to be associated together—especially in the U.S. This phenomenon is evidenced in many ways including by simply searching for kava or kratom bars in the area on search engines and platforms such as Yelp.
For example, when using the search term “kava bar” near “Tampa Bay, FL” on Yelp, 20 results came up. Nine out of these 20 results explicitly had “kava” in their name or referred to themselves explicitly as a kava bar or lounge. One of the results had “kratom” in the title and the remaining 10 results did not explicitly refer to kava or kratom. Unsurprisingly, all 20 results advertised that they served kava. However, 19/20 results also advertised that they served kratom.
When searching for “kratom bar” near “Tampa Bay, FL” on Yelp, 47 results come up. 17 out of the total 20 results that came up with the “kava bar” search came up. In other words, 17 results overlapped and came up on Yelp under the search for “kava bar” and for “kratom bar.”
Among the remaining 30 results that came up under the “kratom bar” search, 4 referred to kava in their name, two had kratom in their name, and one had both kava and kratom in their name. The remaining 23 did not refer to kratom or kava in their name. 16 advertised selling both kava and kratom while 7 advertised kratom only (7 did not advertise kratom or kava).
Based on these results, searching for kratom bars turned up more results that served kava than the kava bar search. And every result—except for one—that served kava also served kratom. These results can reflect kava’s and kratom’s association with each other and arguably even their perceived interchangeability. Again, it is important to emphasize that even if kava and kratom appear interchangeable, they are two very distinct herbal products and are not at all interchangeable.
The results of these searches on Yelp are a small dimension that reflects the continuously growing association of kava with kratom or kratom with kava. Results that specifically describe themselves as kava bars/lounges more often than not also serve kratom without referring to themselves as a kratom bar/lounge.
The explanations and rationales for this phenomenon are not completely clear-cut and can vary. Some arguments have posited that kratom is purposely “lumped together” with kava in order to let the more controversial kratom “hide” behind the less controversial kava.
Because kratom is currently classified as a “dietary supplement”, it is not qualified for FDA approval, but is under the regulatory authority of the FDA. In 2016, the DEA tried to make kratom a schedule 1 drug—like heroin and LSD—but halted the process because of fierce backlash from the public as well as congress. As mentioned previously, classifying kratom as a schedule 1 substance would make impede research surrounding kratom and its possible medicinal purposes—the same sort of difficulties that long surrounded medicinal marijuana. While the plans to reclassify and outright ban kratom in the U.S. have been stalled, there is still massive institutional resistance to and suspicion of kratom.
The FDA currently downright warns consumers from using kratom because of their concerns that kratom “affects the same opioid brain receptors as morphine” and thus “appears to have properties that expose users to the risks of addiction, abuse, and dependence.” In the past few years, the FDA has successfully requested import alerts and seizures of kratom on numerous occasions and emphasizes that “there are no FDA-approved uses for kratom, and the agency has received concerning reports about the safety of kratom.” It is worth noting that several concerns surrounding kratom were due to issues—like misleading marketing or contamination—rather than specifically kratom per se. The FDA has previously reported instances of unproven medical claims, salmonella in kratom products, and dangerous levels of heavy metals in certain kratom products.
When it comes to kratom specifically, the FDA’s concerns include the following:
The American Kratom Association debunks these FDA concerns calling them “FDA Myths” and countering them with the following statements: that the deaths associated with kratom use were caused by combining kratom with other drugs, contaminated kratom, or underlying medical conditions; that kratom’s primary alkaloids are “actually only partial agonists, with lower dependence and abuse potential”, that the dependency users can develop on kratom is similar to that of caffeine and is “vastly different from an addiction”, and that “kratom consumer advocacy groups and kratom manufacturer trade associations are committed to providing consumers with safe, high quality kratom products.”
According to the American Kratom Association, about 5 million Americans regularly use kratom. The response to the increased controversy surrounding kratom evidently includes public and congressional backlash against its banning, calls for production standards for kratom, and calls for scientific research on kratom and its potential medicinal uses.
Another possible response to the controversy surrounding kratom—and a response that is controversial in its own way—is the increased association of kratom with kava. The aforementioned search results for kava bars and kratom bars reflected an undeniable association between kava and kratom and one of the possible explanations for it could be the controversies constantly surrounding kratom. In other words, kratom could purposely be sold under the “guise” of a “kava bar” or even be “hiding behind kava” because kava is currently less controversial than kratom. This tactic could make sense in one way from a business perspective by offering a variety of products and marketing it in a less instigative way.
However, from another perspective, the association between kava and kratom could be seen as misleading marketing or even operating above the law.
Kava is a plant with centuries of historical, ceremonial, and social importance that carry on to this day. In addition to being a social and relaxing beverage, kava is a significant part of Pacific Islander culture. In addition to a lifestyle, drinking kava can be a part of a heritage and can reflect aspects of Pacific Islander identity. From this perspective, associating kratom with kava can be seen in a negative light. From a more antagonistic perspective—“hiding” kratom behind kava could even be seen as distorting an important part of Pacific Islander culture.
Kratom certainly has a lot of potential when it comes to its use as an herbal alternative to traditional pharmaceuticals evidenced by the few studies focused on it as well as endless self-reports. Those self-reports should not be ignored simply because they are self-reports but should be used as a starting point for vigorous, clinical research in the possibilities kratom may hold as an alternative medicinal product. In the meantime, kratom should not lump itself together with or even hide behind kava—rather it should stand on its own as the distinct entity it is. The eventual institutional acceptance of kratom cannot come to fruition if it continues to mistakenly be perceived as synonymous with kava or if kava bars continue to be perceived as synonymous with kratom bars.
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