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CDC, experts warn about potential kratom dangers

TUCSON – For the past 2 1/2 years, News 4 Tucson has been closely monitoring an increase in the popularity of the herbal supplement kratom.

Some people say it helps relieve their pain and is a healthier alternative to opioids.

Now, new numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are raising fresh concerns about kratom’s safety.

“I say – you come in here and it doesn’t work, I’ll give you your money back,” said Keith McNesby, co-owner of East Coast Super Subs.

McNesby is a firm believer in the benefits of kratom and said he has seen the positive effects of kratom first-hand.

“I really had a problem with my right shoulder. I couldn’t even lift it past my ear,” McNesby said as he raised his right arm above his head.

In addition to using kratom, McNesby also sells it in his restaurant, and he said business has been booming.

“You’d almost think I created this stuff to try and sell it. It just is what it is,” McNesby laughed.

In 2016, calling kratom an “imminent hazard to public safety” the Drug Enforcement Administration planned to make it illegal, but the ban was delayed.

Now, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, out of approximately 27,000 overdose deaths between 2016 and 2017, 152 were positive for kratom.

“There’s a sort of misconception that because something is natural that it’s necessarily safe and that’s not absolutely true,” said Steve Dudley, with the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center told News 4 Tucson.

The center has seen an increase in the number of calls about kratom, including doctors and hospitals.

“What we’re seeing from that population are mostly either overdoses, either with kratom by itself or in combination with other drugs,” Dudley said.

The center has also been answering calls from people asking for more information about kratom, and its potential dangers and the number of those contacts is increasing.

“Kratom has been around, especially in Southeast Asia where it’s native for thousands of years, and we’ve just gotten on the tail end of it in the last few years, so we’ve definitely seen a recent uptick,” Dudley said.

According to the Pima County medical examiner’s office, there have been no reported overdose deaths related to kratom in Pima County.

Still, experts urge caution when it comes to its use.

“Just like anything else you put in the body like prescription medication, there can be benefits but there also can also be serious risks,” Dudley said.

According to the CDC report, while 152 overdose deaths involved the use of Kratom, 91 of those were caused by the drug.

“There is no blanket statement of it’s safe, it’s not safe. A lot of factors goes into that – your age, disease states, what other medications you’re on, and how much you’re using,” Dudley said.

Mcnesby tells News 4 Tucson, he is keeping an open mind, but for now, he will keep selling kratom, as long as customers are buying.

“I start to see these people and it’s helping them over and over and over, and the worst I’ve heard was indigestion, you know, I’m going to stay with it until you tell me different,” McNesby said.

Earlier this year, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed a measure prohibiting the sale of kratom to minors and urged federal authorities to promptly take a look at kratom and appropriate regulations.

Click here to read the response to the CDC report from the American Kratom Association.

Paul Birmingham

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