News Staff Writer
Noble Kava looks like the average Asheville tea shop with dim lighting and rustic
furniture, but a newcomer might not know at first glance they currently sell a substance that will be illegal by Friday.
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s “Drug of Abuse” resource guide, kratom is an Asian leaf that can be brewed into a tea, put into a pill or smoked with psychotic effects. The Drug Enforcement Agency is putting a country-wide ban on it on Friday as a Schedule I controlled substance, alongside heroin, LSD and ecstasy.
Lauren Mata, a Buncombe County resident and community resident, has used kratom for a year. It helps her manage pain and focus on her work.
On Sept. 6 at Noble Kava, she organized an event to write letters to elected officials demanding a stop to the ban. The letter writing guide she provided prompted kratom users to explain why they had started using the substance. For Mata and so many others, kratom is more than a legal high.
“I’m writing letters because I love this establishment,” Mata said. “I want them to be an establishment for a while and I love the people that I meet here. The people that I have met here have been affected by the kratom ban tremendously and a lot of them have had hard lives and they have pain and need the kratom to get through their days and that’s very important to me.”
As more regulars trickled into Noble Kava, it was obvious Mata’s love for her fellow customers was not unique or one-sided.
Though the individuals changed as people left or came into the kava bar, a perpetual group lounged on the front wall outside chatting. Mata lamented she has not been able to make it to Noble Kava from Black Mountain in the last few months. Customers laughed with each other and showed interest in each others lives.
“I want to help my friends,” Mata said. “I want to help the people I don’t even know that need their kratom and I want to change what the DEA has in store for us.”
Barbara Galloway, a counselor and substance abuse coordinator at UNC Asheville’s Student Health Center, said kratom has been used in the cultures it is native to as a stimulant in low doses and a relaxant in high doses. It has similar properties to opioids prescribed for pain, including pain relief and a euphoric sensation. Many people use kratom as a substitute for opioids.
Galloway said the DEA was restricting kratom to do research. As there has not been much research done up to this point, it is not entirely clear what the addictive and medical properties are. The DEA will be using the next few years to determine whether the medical uses of kratom outweigh the possibility of addiction. The fact it is so similar to highly addictive opioids makes the DEA more suspicious of kratom.
“I think that the opiate epidemic is so much on everybody’s mind,” Galloway said. “It is so widespread and there is so much fear.”
Mata said she thinks big pharmaceutical companies are actually behind the ban and simply do not want a cheaper natural remedy providing competition against their manufactured pills. One of the reasons she prefers kratom is it is natural.
“It’s also a plant that comes out of the ground and you know where it comes from and you know where it is,” Mata said. “But you don’t know what is in that little pill bottle.”
Galloway said she is not so sure kratom users should feel so secure. Because kratom is currently unregulated, there is no way to control what is added to a kratom product or to be sure the substance is pure.
However, people who use kratom for pain management are staying off of opiates. Galloway said the research simply was not there to prove the risk of addiction was less than prescribed opioids. She hopes there will be more research in the future and until then, kratom will not disappear. The communities forming around the substance will get sneakier about acquiring it.
“It is really unfortunate if we are banning something that truly is helping people for pain management, that is honest-to-God helping them,” Galloway said.
Students who are struggling with opiate addiction or are concerned about their use of kratom or how the kratom ban will affect them can schedule an appointment at the Counseling Center for confidential service. The Health and Counseling Center can be reached at 828-251-6520. More information can be found at healthandcounseling.unca.edu/substance-abuse-services.