Kratom — an herbal painkiller — could become legal again in Indiana

Medical experts are conflicted about the plant, but a Johns Hopkins professor told state lawmakers kratom is safe

By: - February 27, 2023 7:00 am

Fresh green Kratom leaf (Mitragyna speciosa) with kratom powder capsule isolated on wooden table background. (Getty Images)

A plant substance touted as a natural painkiller, “energy booster” and even a treatment for opioid withdrawal could once again become legal in Indiana under a bill advancing through the state legislature.

House Bill 1500, authored by Rep. Alan Morrison, R-Brazil, would permit the sale of kratom, an herbal extract derived from the leaves of a tropical evergreen tree. The plant is native to Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea.

Kratom was legal in Indiana until 2014, when state lawmakers banned the substance in anticipation of similar action at the federal level. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has failed to outlaw kratom, despite numerous attempts. 

In Indiana, kratom is currently listed as a schedule 1 narcotic — the same as heroin or cocaine.

Rep. Alan Morrison, R-Brazil. (Courtesy House Republicans)

While some critics compare kratom to opioids — cautioning that the plant has addictive properties — advocates say it can ease everything from chronic pain to substance abuse withdrawal.

Where it’s legal, the plant is often purchased as a powder or liquid which can then be stirred into drinks. It also comes in tea or capsule form. 

Morrison’s bill would allow anyone over the age of 18 to buy kratom in Indiana, as long as the packaging contains certain information about where and how it was produced.

“People use this supplement as an energy boost to help with anxiety and even pain relief, and the spectrum of what they use it for, or how, is based on the dosage and the amount that they take,” Morrison said earlier this month as lawmakers discussed the bill in the House commerce committee. “But it is not a drug. It is an herbal botanical plant.”

The bill advanced 53-40 from the House last week — with mixed support from both sides of the isle — and now heads to the Senate.

Indiana is one of just six states to currently ban kratom sales. Still, an estimated 100,000 Hoosiers are already using the substance, according to the American Kratom Association. Kratom is legal in all of Indiana’s border states, making it easy to bring across the border.

But a black market also exists for kratom, Morrison said, increasing the risk for an “impure” substance, or products that are contaminated with other different chemicals like cocaine, fentanyl, and heroin.

“It’s critically important that we enact these kinds of regulatory frameworks to protect consumers so that they can make informed choices and use the product properly,” said Matt Caddo, a policy fellow with the American Kratom Association.

What the kratom reversal would entail 

The latest version of Morrison’s bill would require kratom packaging to contain a scannable bar or QR code that provides information about the manufacturer, as well as data on product batch and what ingredients were used.

Labels would also caution pregnant women to consult their physician before consuming it. Failure to comply with the sale and packing regulations could result in an infraction and a fine of up to $10,000. 

Selling or providing a kratom product to a minor would additionally be illegal. 

Distribution violators could face a Class B misdemeanor and up to 180 days in jail for a first offense, and a Class A misdemeanor — punishable by up to one year in a county jail — if they have a previous conviction.

Where health experts stand

Some health experts have expressed concern that kratom can lead to psychotic symptoms and even cause recovering addicts to relapse.

The FDA has not approved kratom for any medical use, instead warning not to use the plant because “it appears to have properties that expose users to the risks of addiction, abuse and dependence.”

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) additionally lists kratom as a “drug of concern.”

But Jack Henningfield, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said those claims continue to be refuted — including by other professionals in the medical research community.

“It’s not approved (by the FDA) as a drug, but around the world people use it therapeutically,” Henningfield said. “The best side effect from a health perspective is that if you take too much, you get nauseated, and if you take a little more, you might throw up.”

He testified before lawmakers that the plant has safely been used in Southeast Asia “for millennia” as an herbal form of pain relief during pregnancy and childbirth, and “as a daily pick me up in place of coffee or tea.”

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Kratom, which is related to the coffee plant, produces stimulant effects in low doses and sedative effects in high doses, Henningfield noted.

“There is no public health data that shows imminent public health threat,” he said. “There’s public health data that shows that if you schedule it, you will create a problem — you will create a black market.”

John DeLao, a University of Indianapolis student, further testified in support of kratom legalization, telling lawmakers he was able to overcome a heroin addiction by using the substance. 

“Kratom isn’t going to completely remove those withdrawal symptoms, but it will lower them significantly,” he said. “That little bit of less withdrawal could be the reason somebody ends up getting off of it.”

Kratom can be purchased from smoke shops and vitamin stores in other places, although lawmakers in some states are trying to enact more restrictions. For example, the Louisiana Legislature approved a bill in 2019 to make kratom illegal if the DEA regulates it. That hasn’t happened yet, however.

The Georgia Legislature is currently considering a kratom ban after several people blamed the plant for contributing to the deaths of their family members. But legislators there have so far declined to advance the bill.


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Casey Smith
Casey Smith

A lifelong Hoosier, Casey Smith previously reported on the Indiana Legislature for The Associated Press. Internationally, she has reported on water quality across South America. She holds a master’s degree in investigative reporting and narrative science writing from the University of California/Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She previously earned degrees in journalism, anthropology and Spanish from Ball State University, where she now serves as an instructor of journalism.