For many, 2020 has been a year of twists and turns. Even the kratom world couldn't escape the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused massive social and economic disruptions on a global scale.
But in retrospect, 2020 wasn't all bad for kratom. Along the way, dedicated kratom advocates continued to fight hard to protect their beloved plant. Policy advisors set the groundwork for promising kratom law reform. And researchers helped unearth new truths about the plant's various properties. Thanks to their collective efforts, 2021 looks to be even brighter.
As the holidays approach and the year winds to a close, we're taking the time to reflect on five of this year's biggest kratom news stories. After the chaotic year that was 2020, you may have missed them!
At the start of 2020, the American Kratom Association (AKA) had planned to pass its pro-kratom regulation bill, the Kratom Consumer Protection Act (KCPA), in more than twenty states. They had reason to believe that they'd be successful: The AKA had successfully passed versions of the KCPA in Arizona, Utah, Georgia, and Nevada. They wrote the bill to protect kratom consumers by standardizing how kratom products are manufactured, labelled, and sold.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States in full-force in late March, it shut down economies, shuttered businesses, and halted state legislative sessions. Suddenly, the AKA's plans for kratom law reform were sidelined.
Despite the delays, Mac Haddow, the AKA's Senior Fellow on Public Policy, seems to be optimistic about next year's progress. In a recent Facebook Live Event, he spoke about how the AKA has successfully shifted legislative opinion on the plant and how kratom consumer testimonials will help drive the organization's upcoming efforts in 2021.
"In 2019, we had four states that passed the KCPA," said Haddow. "We were seeing amazing votes that were being taken when these legislators had a chance to look at the science, look at the policy arguments that we were making, exposing the FDA's lies and misinformation that they were disseminating, and they heard the powerful testimonies of kratom consumers who told their stories about how kratom had improved the quality of their lives, and in some cases, saved their lives."
"Those are the kinds of success stories that build the foundation for us to make a real difference in the upcoming 2021 legislative sessions," Haddow continued. "COVID is still with us, obviously, but the legislatures have understood how to deal with it. Rather than shutting down, they have procedures now in place where most things will be done virtually."
Despite setbacks, 2020 was brimming with kratom research breakthroughs that challenged existing perceptions of the plant.
In one such study, a team of researchers investigated the rewarding properties of mitragynine (MG) and 7-hydroxymitragynine (7-HMG), two of kratom's primary alkaloids. Both alkaloids are believed to be the driving forces behind the plant's various effects. (Prozialeck et al., 2012, pg 796) But there's some concern that these alkaloids might make kratom abusable. (Hemby et al., 2018, pg 2)
To find out, the research team administered both MG and 7-HMG to the rats and observed their reaction, along with morphine for comparison. After receiving morphine, the rats didn't seek out self-stimulation. But they were motivated to self-stimulate after receiving doses of both kratom alkaloids. This led the authors to conclude that “these kratom alkaloids do not have abuse potential.”
However, because the researchers used an animal study model, their conclusions don't necessarily speak to kratom's addictive potential in humans. Another 2020 kratom study also casts doubt on their findings: It found that when humans consume 7-HMG, it converts to a stronger alkaloid called mitragynine pseudoindoxyl. That study's authors noted that mitragynine pseudoindoxyl “is an even more potent opioid agonist [and] likely to also be highly abusable.” (Kamble et al., 2020) Strangely, this conversion to mitragynine pseudoindoxyl also seems much stronger in humans than in rats.
Midway through 2020, the American Kratom Association saw a change in leadership when its Chairman, Dave Herman, voluntarily resigned. After leading the organization's advocacy efforts since 2016, Herman announced that his age and the mounting COVID-19 pandemic had motivated his decision: "The combination of age (I will shortly be 73) and being self-quarantined for well over a month because of the Coronavirus has convinced me it is time to move on,” Herman said.
The AKA's new chairman, Matt Salmon, was a former Republican congressman for Arizona. When the AKA introduced him to the public during a virtual town hall meeting, Salmon said he was "thrilled" to lead the organization: “People ought to have choices. My whole political career… I’ve longed championed the idea of using every tool in the toolbox when it comes to healthcare and giving people options."
Mac Haddow, a fellow AKA member, later clarified that Herman's decision to step down might have also been motivated by health concerns. "Many people don't know, but Dave suffered through lung cancer and so he's a high-risk individual with respect to this COVID virus," said Haddow during a Facebook live event (54:00). "I remember asking him if he could go up to New Hampshire to testify to New Hampshire senate because I was out in Mississippi, and we had a conflict on the schedules and he willingly went. And yet his wife was very upset with me, and she told me so, that I was putting him at risk, and this was just as the COVID thing was starting to explode. And you know, she was right, and Dave had to make a decision about where he wanted him to be and his family's position with respect to protecting his health and safety, so he stepped down."
France started 2020 by making it illegal for its citizens to buy, sell, or possess kratom. On January 1st, the country added kratom and its compounds to its list of prohibited psychotropic substances.
France’s ANSM (National Medicines Safety Agency) said that "serious health risks" motivated the ban decision. In banning the plant, France has joined a growing list of European countries that have controlled or illegalized kratom. As of this writing, that list includes Sweden, Poland, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia, Ireland, and Denmark.
For years, kratom users have argued about whether or not kratom's effects vary among strains and products. The debate has raged on largely due to a lack of science: While many scientists have explored the plant's effects, few studies have focused on analyzing the differences between kratom strains and products. But in 2020, researchers finally put the theory to the test.
In their study, the researchers analyzed over fifty commercial kratom products. They found that the products contained varying levels of mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine, the alkaloids primarily responsible for kratom's effects. But their biggest discovery concerned levels of another alkaloid, speciofoline. Levels of speciofoline fluctuated by more than 90-fold in their tested kratom samples, while mitragynine levels only varied by fourfold. (Todd et al., 2020, pg 3)
Unfortunately, the researchers don't know if speciofoline is psychoactive or what role it might play in kratom's effects. They noted that speciofoline "did not exhibit appreciable affinity for any of the opioid receptors" that are targeted by alkaloids like mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine. (Todd et al., 2020, pg 5)
Nonetheless, the authors concluded that "...individuals who self-administer kratom tea to treat pain, addiction, or depression might achieve very different results depending on the alkaloid profile of the product that they use." (Todd et al., 2020, pg 8)
In some ways, 2020 may have pushed kratom to the sidelines. Stay-at-home advisories and travel restrictions stymied in-person advocacy efforts. Legislature closures delayed the passing of key laws that could protect American kratom consumers. And for similar reasons, new research efforts may have delayed or postponed.
But because so much of the kratom world exists online, even a highly-contagious virus couldn't bring the community surrounding the plant to a standstill. Kratom vendors continued shipping products to customers around the world. Advocacy organizations like the American Kratom Association emphasized digital communications by holding many events online. And kratom community members continued to share their thoughts and experiences with the plant with one another on various websites like this one.
It's unclear what 2021 holds for kratom. But if 2020's delays are lifted, and plans are once again set in motion, all signs could point to big things.