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The government says herbal drug kratom is unsafe, but this chronic pain patient uses it daily


RICHMOND, Va. (CIRCA) - Kratom is an herbal supplement banned in six states and considered to be harmful and dangerous by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), but Shaunna Kaufmann uses it daily.

"Many people use it for different reasons, but for me it's to treat the chronic pain,” Kaufmann said.

Kratom originates from a plant in Southeast Asia, but in the United States it is being used as an alternative to opioids, according to Dr. Kirk Cumpston, medical director of the Virginia Poison Center.

"It’s certainly over the last few years increased in parallel with the opioid epidemic that’s gripping our country now,” Dr. Cumpston said. “And because of crackdowns on prescribing, people are turning back to non-prescription alternatives, like kratom, or using street drugs, like heroine or fentanyl to continue to use opioids.”

Kaufmann started using kratom for pain management after a neck fusion. She said she had not wanted to use prescription pills for the rest of her life, but she also did not want to be in pain.

“The pain is one of the hardest you could ever treat. It definitely doesn't take it away, but I was able to not have to take my percocets and I didn't have to take steroid injections, which I usually had to take routinely," Kaufmann said.

Kratom can be used in tea or taken in pill form, according to Kaufmann, though she uses the powder.

And while Kaufmann uses the supplement for pain, she said it can also be used to help people with anxiety and those going through withdrawals from other opioids.

"Everyone thinks kratom are mainly for people wanting to get off of drugs. Yes it is, but that's just a portion of the kratom consumers. I'm just a normal woman, clean spotless record, no drug use, college graduate, grew up in Cupertino," Kaufmann said.

But kratom does not have a great reputation with everyone. The substance has already been banned in Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Vermont, and Washington, D.C., and the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has warned the public not to use kratom because of concerns it could be unsafe.

"The first risk, really with any herbal drug, is you don’t really know what’s in there. That’s the whole idea, that’s why it’s herbal, that’s why it’s not FDA approved because it’s not been scrutinized, it’s not been studied and we don’t really know the true contents of what’s in it that that you’re using," Dr. Cumpston said.

He also said those who use the substance could be at risk of becoming addicted.

And most recently, the Centers for Disease Control and the FDA announced in March an outbreak of salmonella in the U.S. was linked to kratom products. They recommended people stop using kratom and recalled over 30 products containing the substance.

"Clearly, with the E. coli infectious problem, is there really is not a great standard process to make sure it’s safe for human consumption because they are just trying to make money off of selling kratom," Dr. Cumpston said.

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But Kaufmann said there is a lot of misinformation going around about kratom, which is what led her to start posting educational videos about the substance on YouTube and other social media sites.

"My whole focus from the beginning was to push educational videos because, when I entered the community, there wasn't really anything out there that really helped a new person understand what it was," Kaufmann said.

Though even in the private sector, Kaufmann is receiving push back since she said YouTube recently shut down her channel.

Kaufmann, who owns her own business and has become a voice for the movement to legalize kratom, said the substance could probably benefit from some oversight.

"There should be some form of regulation on kratom because of those idiots that kind of ruin it for many people. There's been people that have laced kratom, mixed it with other things to make it stronger, and those people obviously affect the community and affect the plant and obviously those that are fighting to keep it legal," Kaufmann said.

"Because of that, I do believe there should be some form of rules, of packaging, of the clean room, of ways to test the kratom. Mandatory testing should definitely be something that's forced," she continued.

But whether people use it for pain or to help with withdrawal symptoms, Dr. Cumpston said people should stay away from the drug.

"It’s always a gamble, and if you can sort of take away the unknowns with drugs that we know how they work and know the good and bad of those drugs then you are doing a better service to yourself that you are avoiding some risks," Dr. Cumpston said.

Kratom has been listed as a drug of concern by the DEA since 2011, and a DEA official told Circa the agency's evaluation of the substance is ongoing and they do not have a timeline to share about possibly scheduling the substance.

"Yes, it’s safer then injecting yourself with heroin or fentanyl because those things kill you, but it also has its own price when you use it," Dr. Cumpston said.

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Correction: A previous version of this article stated kratom could be smoked and attributed it to Kaufmann, but the statement should have been attributed to Dr. Cumpston.

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