Raleigh, N.C. — A proposal to ban the use of kratom in North Carolina met with a lukewarm reception in the Senate Health Committee on Tuesday, as members asked for more data on the drug and its effects.
Kratom, sometimes called ketom, is a medicinal plant native to Southeast Asia. While not technically an opioid, it acts on opioid receptors, offering some of the same effects, though some users have reported stimulative qualities as well.
It's typically brewed in a tea. Packets of the herb can be bought online, as well as at stores that sell drug paraphernalia and even at some gas stations. There is no age limit for sales in most states, including North Carolina.
Advocates for kratom say it offers relief for chronic pain and has helped some former addicts to stop using opioids. But its detractors say it's highly addictive and could pose a public health threat. Thailand, where the plant originated, banned its use in 1943.
Senate Bill 830 would add kratom to the state's controlled substances list along with opioids. Sponsor Sen. Tom McInnis, R-Scotland, said he spoke with the state's medical examiner about what he says is the growing use of the drug.
"Twenty-three bodies they’ve had on the slab over there have tested positive for kratom," McInnis told the committee. "It’s time to put the brakes on this product before the next epidemic starts."
When questioned, McInnis conceded that 14 of the 23 had other illegal drugs in their systems as well.
Sen. Tommy Tucker, R-Union, held up two brightly colored hand-lettered roadside signs advertising kratom for pain and addiction relief.
"This is what’s on the side of the road in my county," Tucker said. "This is how it happens. People are selling it, no age limit, no nothing."
However, he added, "I've gotten lots of emails from people who say it’s helped them greatly, has helped them get off of heroin."
"I’ve heard about a lot of people calling me and writing me about about it, saying it helps them with pain – chronic pain," agreed Sen. Paul Lowe, D-Forsyth.
According to McInnis, Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Tennessee, Vermont and Wisconsin have all outlawed kratom. Many other states have considered it but decided not to criminalize it, a fact that concerned some committee members.
“I’d really like to hear some data. This all feels very anecdotal for me," said Sen. Terry Van Duyn, D-Buncombe, asking for testimony from state public health director Dr. Randall Williams.
Others, including Sen. Gladys Robinson, D-Guilford, seconded the call for more study.
"Have we talked to the medical society or anybody in North Carolina that’s doing research?" Robinson asked. "If you’re making it a felony, that means incarceration."
Tucker, the committee chairman, said the panel would hear testimony from district attorneys, the State Crime Lab and the state medical examiner at a future meeting and would take public comment, which wasn't allowed Tuesday. He said the bill could come back before the committee for a vote as soon as next week.
"We don’t want to rush through this if we’re going to impact somebody’s life," Tucker said. "But sometime, somewhere we've got to figure out what we’re going to do."