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FDA to Block Shipments of Kratom, a Dietary Supplement Popular in N.H.

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The FDA announced last week that it plans to block U.S. shipments of a dietary supplement that's popular in New Hampshire.

The administration has issued an urgent warning about the herbal supplement kratom, saying it can be addictive and deadly. But former opioid users have said it’s helped them with recovery.

Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with state Sen. Martha Fuller Clark about kratom and its use in New Hampshire.

(Editor's note: this transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.)

Last year you had proposed legislation to ban kratom in New Hampshire, but after hearing testimonies from so many people who said that it had help them with recovery, you had decided to amend the bill so the ban only applied to minors. What were you hearing from people about how they use this supplement?

Well, I had never heard of this substance until I read about it in an article in The New York Times in December of 2015. I filed the bill in January of 2016, and there was a very long and impassioned public hearing before the Senate that was considering this legislation. And we heard over and over again from individuals who came forward talking about the different ways that they had used kratom. They had used it for menstrual pain. They had used it to get off opioids. They had used it for joint pain. They used it for anxiety. And so the question was really how dangerous was this drug that is coming into the United States from Southeast Asia, principally from Thailand, either over the Internet, or it's being sold in local shops throughout our state.

So this is something that is readily available here to people.

It is people it is readily available here.

And we should explain that it's herbal, right?

It’s herbal. It comes from a leaf of a plant in Thailand, and often times it is brewed in a tea. It's banned in a number of countries in Southeast Asia, including Thailand where it originated. Because the worry is that [with] long term use, it is addictive and that it can cause weight loss, urination problems, emotional issues, hallucinations, delusions and confusion.

And my understanding is that it is an opiate substitute. So it has some effects that we think of in opiates, does it not?

Right, and I think that's you know the challenge here. How addictive is it? How dangerous is it? When we had the public hearing and so many people came forward to testify as how it had helped them, there was great reluctance to actually ban the substance, and the bill really went nowhere as a result of that. I think I was concerned that we needed to get on top of this early in New Hampshire, since we had had such severe issues with opioids here in New Hampshire that caught us by surprise. But the will to move forward two years ago in the legislature was simply not there, and it was very challenging to know if it was really the appropriate thing to do, given the enormous outpouring from individuals as to how it had been helpful to them.

And this supplement is, as we've said, it's completely legal and unregulated among adults right now in New Hampshire. You can buy it at smoke shops, as you said.

That's right. What was interesting [was] to hear from a number of enforcement officers in our state. They are the ones who testified that we should move ahead and make it illegal. Of course the other question that we're dealing with is, do we really want to criminalize people who are using this drug? I do think it makes sense perhaps to make it more difficult for individuals to access it, but then where do we go since at the same time we're looking at trying to treat addiction in a less punitive way?

And you'd have complications obviously from criminalizing it simply because you drive people underground too.

Right, and it was labeled by the FDA as a drug of concern. I still think it is a drug of concern. We know it has been banned in Illinois, Tennessee, Vermont and Wisconsin. I don't know how that ban has been working in terms of the sale and access, particularly since I understand that one of the easiest ways to acquire it is over the internet.

For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.
Mary McIntyre is a senior producer at NHPR. She manages the station's news magazines, Morning Edition and All Things Considered. You can email her at mmcintyre@nhpr.org.

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