The following op-ed was written in February 2018 and submitted to the Star-Ledger newspaper of New Jersey, which ultimately did not publish it. It is republished here for the sake of archiving and future distribution in advocacy.
On February 1, 2018, New Jersey Assemblyman and Deputy Republican Leader of the state legislature Ronald S. Dancer (District 12, Burlington, Middlesex, Monmouth, and Ocean Counties) introduced a bill that would criminalize the manufacture, sale, and possession of kratom, an herb native to Southeast Asia related to the coffee plant. Under this proposed law, mere possession of this plant or its derivatives could result in up to 10 years in prison and a $150,000 fine.
This is a terrible decision for a number of reasons, not least of which includes depriving people dependent on opiates of a useful withdrawal aide and substitution therapy, threatening millions of ordinary, law-abiding, nonviolent New Jerseyans with senseless incarceration, the continuation of a disproven prohibitionist mindset that falsely believes making laws banning substances will prevent people from using them, and the inherently anti-conservative position of using paternalist government overreach to interfere in the personal lifestyle choices, cognitive liberty, and free development of personality of residents.
Kratom is one of the common names for Mitragyna speciosa, a tropical evergreen tree in the coffee family, indigenous to Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Burma, and Papua New Guinea. It has been used as a traditional medicine in these cultures for hundreds of years, where locals chew the leaves to relieve musculoskeletal pain and to increase energy, appetite, and sexual fortitude. In the United States, it is commonly sold in smoke shops as capsules or powder, mixed into beverages, tea, or citrus. The psychoactive chemicals in kratom include mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitagynine, types of alkaloids that act as “opioid agonists,” meaning they bind to and activate opioid receptors in the nervous system. This causes mild stimulant effects at low doses and pain relieving analgesic and euphoric effects at moderate doses. But these chemicals are not opiates, because they are not made from or related to the opium poppy, like heroin, morphine, and oxycodone are.
A February 8th letter released by scientists in response to a recent but misinformed FDA kratom advisory explains that the “current body of credible research into the actual effects of kratom demonstrates that it is not dangerously addictive, nor is it similar to ‘narcotics like opioids’ with respect to ‘addiction’ and ‘death,’” as stated by the FDA. “As it is commonly used in raw plant form” (including as powder), “it does not appear to produce the highly addictive euphoria or lethal respiratory depression of classical opioids.” The scientists point out that kratom has “a long history of acceptably safe consumer use,” and they worry that its prohibition could increase the number of opioid deaths, as many who have problematically used opiates in the past find kratom to be a safe substitution and lifeline away from the strong drugs, meaning they very likely may revert back to them if this safer natural option is taken away.
Medical points aside, it is also critical that we not overlook the inherent liberty of all people to decide for themselves what they put into their own bodies, absent harm to others. This idea that we need the government or lawmakers far away not only dictating how we choose to explore our consciousness, but threatening to put people in jail for doing so, is ethically fraught. How many people die from misuse of alcohol, yet it remains legal and accessible? Adding more laws and more policing to the books to coerce certain preferred behaviors over others is not the hallmark of a free society, nor is it a conservative position respecting of our individual sovereignty over our minds and bodies.
We know that prohibition does not work. It creates a black market, and also drives the adulteration, concentration, and synthetic replacement of otherwise safer nature-based mood-altering substances, worsening both health and public safety outcomes. Ban kratom, and more people will be driven toward more dangerous drugs. Criminalize kratom, and more otherwise peaceful people will fill our prisons, disrupting communities and livelihoods, more than likely with racially disproportionate impacts. Mr. Dancer’s bill is a terrible idea and needs to die in committee and not be considered again. If he wants to do something about kratom, he should explore ways to ensure its safety, purity, and accessibility for people who want to use it, instead of threatening to lock up New Jerseyans for consuming this beneficial plant.
James Carli is a former Maltese delegate to the United Nations serving the human rights and budgetary committees, and is a former staff member of the Drug Policy Alliance at their Manhattan headquarters. He currently works for a humanitarian NGO in New York.