War Veteran on Kratom: DEA Taking Away Right to a Manageable Life

Mitragyna speciosa, also known as kratom, has been used as a mild stimulant and to treat pain. Some also say it has addictive properties. ThorPorre via Wikimedia Commons

Have you heard of kratom? It's a very, very dangerous leaf, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. In late August, the DEA decided to effectively outlaw the substance, which is made from the leaves of a Southeast Asian tree called Mitragyna speciosa. In a "notice of intent" published August 31, the DEA stated its plan to list the herb as a Schedule I substance (the most restrictive category), alongside heroin and LSD, effective September 30.

The move has outraged the hundreds of thousands of kratom users in the United States, as well as those who say the act is undemocratic. At low doses, kratom acts as a mild stimulant, and in larger amounts it reduces pain. Many attest to its potent pain-killing abilities, as well as its power to help wean people off addictive opiates like heroin. But there are also a significant number of anecdotes indicating that it may be addictive in some people.

The DEA has said kratom is an "imminent hazard to the public safety" and thus needs to undergo emergency drug scheduling, without public comment. But the agency has provided very little evidence of that. The notice states that there were 660 calls received from 2010 to 2015 regarding kratom, an almost comically small amount. (For comparison, there were 6,843 reports of kids eating single-load laundry pods from January to July 2016.) The notice also says kratom has been linked with 30 deaths throughout the world in recorded history, although all of these involved other drugs as well. That too is a small number, compared with the 52 deaths caused by prescription painkillers every day. Research suggests kratom is not very harmful (although much more research is warranted—a 2015 literature review concluded "kratom is considered minimally toxic") and prevents pain without interfering with breathing, unlike opiates.

The DEA's move greatly upset decorated veteran Sergeant David Dasilma, who immigrated to the United States from Canada and joined the Army one day after becoming a citizen. He served tours of duty in Iraq as a medic and received 19 military decorations during his six years in the Army, and he was the 2009 noncommissioned officer of the year. (He's also an actor and writer, who's penned two novels.) Dasilma says he takes kratom to ease pain caused by several combat-related injuries, and the plant allows him to live a manageable life and not take the panoply of zombifying prescription drugs doctors have given him.

When he found out about the DEA's move in late August, he posted a video on Facebook that has amassed hundreds of thousands of views. Newsweek caught up with Dasilma to hear his thoughts on the DEA's decision to ban kratom.

Why'd you decide to make the video?
I had just found out about the news and had worked super late. I was pissed off and decided to rant. I'm a vet, and I have some battle injuries, and kratom really helps me. It upsets me that it's labeled as a drug and that the DEA has just decided to ban it.

What's the process of taking kratom like?
I steep a pot of hot tea, with kratom, and then I cool it. I have two mugs of kratom tea, and that's it. Just by doing that, I don't have to take seven drugs.

For me, that's huge. I cannot remember the last time I had a migraine. My feet are fine. They hurt, but I can run and work out. My shoulder is good enough to lift. It basically treated all of my problems that I was taking seven other medications for.

How'd you first get introduced to kratom?
I was in a lot of pain, and my best friend of 30 years, who's in the kratom business, gave me some to try. I took a small dose, felt alert, but it didn't help the pain. [This is one of the interesting effects of kratom—stimulating at low doses, causing pain relief at larger doses.] So then I took more. Suddenly, my feet didn't hurt. Man, I felt good. That was at night. The next morning, I went for a run. That's really hard to do in my situation.

What kind of injuries do you have?
In both my feet, I have [a painful condition called] plantar fasciitis, and one toe I broke jumping out of a plane for the Army. It never healed properly—it causes permanent pain. The advice I got from the doctors was just about pain management. There's no way to actually help.

I also have a right shoulder injury, went to rehab for it. And disk degeneration disease in my low back. These injuries occurred because while in the Army, there's not enough time to heal. There's a mission to accomplish. Every few months, I'll be walking and pull my back, be out for weeks. There were also head injuries, and I get migraines, six to seven per month.

From December 2014 to May 2015, the VA did a big push where they encouraged vets to get treated for anything bothering them. I had like 55 medical appointments during those six months. I was put on seven different drugs, including strong painkillers, migraine meds and muscle relaxants.

I tried to take them for about a week. I was in a complete fog. I was in grad school, and I was completely ineffective. What a bad decision, to take any of those prescriptions.

At this point, I take kratom three times a week, and it really helps with the pain, into the next day.

What are you going to do after September 30?
I'm not going to have a fridge full of it [like I do now]. But I'm still going to take it. I'm not going to deal with this pain. I don't have a plan yet.

I'm not going to stop taking it because people who don't take it, who don't know anything about it, have decided to ban it.

Aren't you afraid of getting caught?
My impression is that what they're going to go after is the stores and the distributors.

What is the kratom "high" like?
I don't feel high on kratom. It's not even in the same ballpark [as alcohol or other drugs].

When I take the high dose, I don't get quite a buzz, but I do get a warm fuzzy feeling, like ahhhh. My senses are also heightened a bit. My music sounds a little bit better. Sexual activity [feels better]. But I definitely don't mind those effects.

Do you buy the argument that kratom is addictive?
I don't know about that. For me, it's not. But, I don't have an addictive personality. I spent five weeks in Vancouver without taking it, and I was completely fine.

What I've heard about addiction—when you're off something, you really need it, crave it. It's not like that. It's harder for me to not buy the $1 thing of Junior Mints in Wal-Mart than to not drink kratom.

I see alcohol, heroin, cocaine addiction. That's real. But not kratom.

Abuse of anything will cause negative consequences. I'm unsure how somebody could stomach or take enough kratom to have an adverse effect. It's a leaf. You have to boil it, make tea basically. The stuff is bitter.

How do you feel about the DEA's decision?
This is happening as an emergency order, so there's no vote [or comment]. It should be in the public. You should have a chance to vote on this. At least then it'd be a fair fight.

I mean, I would be fine with a ban as long as it's America that makes it illegal and not a few people in the DEA.

Why do you think the DEA has made this decision?
To me, it seems very clear that pharmaceutical companies have [drugs in development] that are similar, and what they're trying to do is not allow a natural substance on the market. The companies lobby the FDA, which advises the DEA. These companies can't make money on kratom. And that's why.