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Reefer Madness Redux: FDA Overstates Claims of Kratom Abuse Deaths

(from Wikimedia commons)

In an episode from that font of wisdom and subtlety, the Comedy Central cartoon series South Park, series regular Stan Marsh becomes the victim of a well-meaning hoax by his parents to keep him from ever using drugs: They hire an actor to portray a future Stan who has become a drug-addicted derelict because he smoked marijuana. When he discovers the truth, an angry and exasperated Stan tells his parents, “I’ve been told a lot of things about pot, but I’ve come to find out a lot of those things aren’t true! So I don’t know what to believe!” That’s when his mother realizes, “If we use lies and exaggerations to keep kids off drugs, then they’re never gonna believe anything we tell them.”

US Attorney General Jeff Sessions never learned that lesson, apparently. He still is promulgating the anti-marijuana myths from Reefer Madness, Marihuana: Weed with Roots in Hell and the TV show Dragnet, such as that marijuana is a gateway drug.

In 2016, Sessions famously said, “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” More recently, speaking at the Heritage Foundation, he disagreed with the Drug Enforcement Agency about the cause of the opioid epidemic. “The DEA said that a huge percentage of the heroin addiction starts with prescriptions. That may be an exaggerated number; they had it as high as 80 percent. We think a lot of this is starting with marijuana and other drugs too.”

Not that the DEA is an unbiased source, but it would be more likely to exaggerate than minimize the dangers of cannabis. But Sessions knows better because he bought hook, line, and sinker lies that Stan Marsh was smart enough to question.

Stan’s father (a former marijuana smoker) finally tells him what he feels are the real dangers of marijuana, at least excessive or chronic use: “Pot makes you feel fine with being bored … It’s when you’re bored that you should be learning some new skill or discovering some new science or being creative. If you smoke pot, you may grow up to find out that you aren’t good at anything.”

Now the FDA is trying to use the same kind of propaganda with kratom, an herbal remedy or dietary supplement reputed to have some of the same health benefits as cannabis for treating chronic pain and possibly opioid use cessation.

Last week FDA declared that kratom is an opioid — I guess to associate it with “bad” drugs like heroin and fentanyl — and linked its use to dozens of deaths that, upon closer examination, seem dubious. In some of these deaths, kratom was only one of the substances in the body at the time, sometimes one of many. In one case, the death was due to a gunshot, but kratom also was found in the body.

The DEA tried to have kratom reclassified as a drug in 2016, and placed on Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act — along with marijuana, heroin, LSD and other irredeemable drugs — but public outcry stopped them.

Federal agencies dislike both kratom and cannabis beyond reason. Both can be used and both can be abused. Addiction may be possible. It would be nice to know more about them and not have to rely on discredited propaganda films and anecdotal evidence. But the propaganda, Sessions excepted, has been discredited. The anecdotes show real promise for people who are suffering, including veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder whose conditions haven’t been helped by pharmaceutical remedies.

Neither the government or pharmaceutical companies will do the needed research, but use that lack of research as an excuse to try to ban them. This must stop. If the federal government wants to declare these as dangerous substances with no health benefits, in the face of overwhelming public support, they should prove it. The FDA was trying with kratom, and could only come with a laughably short and tenuous list. Marijuana has never had a recorded overdose death.

Yes, they can be abused. So can many legal and regulated products, including alcohol. We tried prohibition for that, and it failed miserably. If you need help with marijuana abuse, kratom addiction or alcoholism, seek treatment. Don’t throw out another possibly useful treatment with the bath water.

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