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An Introduction to Kratom
The Korth tree (Mitragyna speciosa) is widely known as “kratom.” Many believe the name “Mitragyna” originates from the plant’s resemblance to the shape of a mitre, a type of ceremonial headdress for bishops. Some, however, suggest that the term derives from the ancient Roman cult of Mithras due to its psychedelic and religious uses. Kratom is a tropical evergreen tree that is part of the Rubiaceae family (the family to which coffee also belongs). It typically grows in marshy lands and reaches heights of 50 feet with a spread of over 15 feet. The plant is indigenous to Southeast Asia—more specifically to countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. It can be traced to both the rainforests in Asia and the swampy areas of Africa.
These native populations have used Kratom for hundreds, if not thousands of years for a variety of reasons. However, it was only in 1836 when the first scientific reference of Kratom appeared, referring to its use as an opium substitute in Malaysia. The plant’s potential to help overcome opioid withdrawal symptoms was reported shortly after in the early 1900s. As users turned to this unregulated plant, the government of Thailand began to experience a huge decrease in opium tax revenue. As a result, the government passed The Kratom Act in 1943 to prohibit the circulation and cultivation of the plant. With stricter enforcement, Thailand began to see a fourfold in the number of arrests between 2005 and 2009. More recently in 2012, the Thai police called for invading a protected area of forest in Satun Province in order to destroy hundreds of wild Kratom trees. In return, they were met with strong resistance by the locals.
In the regions where Kratom grows, it continues to be used as an anesthetic, intestinal infection treatment, and as a means of increasing one’s sex drive and appetite. Many rural communities in Thailand and Malaysia have turned to Kratom to treat diabetes and diarrhea while using it as a poultice to heal wounds.
Besides its medicinal properties, Kratom has long served practical purposes for the working class in Southeast Asia. Farmers, laborers, and peasants alike often chew fresh or dried Kratom leaves or drink its tea for stimulant effects. In Thailand, workers do so up to ten times a day to manage the strain of working in the sun for hours on end. The resulting boost in energy has allowed them to work for longer hours and with greater productivity. Being able to combat work related fatigue has earned these laborers a good reputation in their communities for being hard-working and uncomplaining.
Traditionally, Kratom has also been used during socioreligious ceremonies within certain forms of Buddhism. Its psychoactive element is believed to stimulate a religious experience of euphoria, spiritual transcendence, and a connection with the divine. For the prominent Muslim communities in Southeast Asia, the plant has served as an alternative to alcohol which is prohibited by the Islamic faith. Since Kratom is deeply ingrained in local culture and customs, many people in these regions do not perceive the plant as a drug. Rather, they value its long-standing traditional uses and see it as a natural part of their everyday life, similar to coffee or nicotine.