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Kratom Gaining Popularity As Opioid Alternative In Southern Arizona

By  Casey Kuhn

Published: Friday, June 30, 2017 – 7:14am
Updated: Friday, June 30, 2017 – 12:16pm
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A kratom vending machine located in Tucson, Arizona.
(Photo by Casey Kuhn – KJZZ)

In the midst of an opioid epidemic, an herbal drug called kratom is showing up as an alternative. It’s from southeast Asia and now it’s in Arizona. Some are calling this drug a lifesaver while others are saying it’s not a safe substitute.

Robert Marquez, 26, started using heroin when he was 17 years old.

“I first started smoking it for like a year, and then I started shooting it and it’s just a vicious cycle, you know,” he said. “I’ll get clean for a little bit and then I go back to it.”

He’s been to rehab a few times to treat his addiction, and it’s there he first heard about the herbal drug kratom.

“Yeah there’s never been a real easy way of getting off heroin I guess, because of the withdrawal and everything, but this kratom really helps a lot,” Marquez said.

This day he’s come into a Tucson sandwich shop, but he’s not looking for a hoagie — he’s looking for a bag of kratom.

There’s a glowing vending machine set up in the back of the sub shop, and instead of chips or pop, it’s filled with different size bags of the herbal drug. They range from $10 to $50, depending on how many grams you want.

For Marquez, finding easily accessible kratom made all the difference.

“And it was like, really hard to find, mostly online or random smoke shops,” Marquez said.

Vending-Machine Kratom: Safe And Effective?

But just because some kratom is easy to come by doesn’t mean the doses are quality, consistent, or have the intended effect.

“There is actually not a very rigorous testing done to see how much, for example, active ingredient of kratom, which is mitragynine, is actually present in each sample,” said Dr. Mazda Shirati, medical director at University of Arizona’s poison and drug information center.

Shirazi said that active ingredient can act like an opioid in the brain. Kratom powder is made from crushed up leaves of a Southeast Asian tree. Thai workers for generations have used it like a stimulant, such as caffeine, and also as a sedative in larger doses.

When the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration caught wind it was gaining popularity in America, they tried to list kratom as a Schedule-1 drug last year, which would have made it illegal.

The pushback was swift, with thousands of comments in support of the drug. So, the DEA withdrew the decision and opened a public comment period, which ended in December. The agency has not yet finished its review of kratom, which it considers a “Drug and Chemical of Concern.” The DEA has attributed 15 deaths to kratom between 2014 and 2016. Several states have made it illegal

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