An unlikely place deep in the remote jungles of Borneo is flourishing, thanks to the nearly insatiable demand for an alternative to opioid-based pharmaceuticals and their potentially deadly effects. The opioid epidemic, considered a public health crisis, has resulted in the loss of lives of thousands of Americans, and the numbers of intentional and accidental overdose deaths attributed to opioids continue to climb.
Because of the rise in opioid deaths, alternatives to the harmful effects are being sought by caregivers and patients alike. Kratom, a controversial plant product that represents a safe opioid alternative to its fans, can be found growing in countries across southeast Asia. In the Indonesian Borneo jungles, a region known as Kapuas Hulu is booming. Kratom is a local commodity, and exports from this kratom-producing region have brought newfound affluence to the residents of the region.
Kratom Cultivation in Indonesian Borneo
Kratom is the colloquial name for an evergreen tree called Mitragyna speciosa. It is a member of the coffee family. It contains several psychoactive compounds, particularly mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine. In the regions where kratom is grown, the plant has been used as part of traditional medicine for centuries. Traditionally, the leaves were chewed to relieve pain. The plant’s leaves are also dried and ground, then made into a tea, and, depending on the amount ingested, may have either stimulant effects or analgesic effects not unlike those of opioids. Today, kratom is used by its adherents as a means of combatting chronic pain, treating opioid withdrawal symptoms, and for recreational purposes.
Borneo’s jungle terrain belies a booming economy. It is estimated that over 60,000 people are employed by kratom-related businesses, and many of those employees are enjoying surprising wealth, enabling them to drive new vehicles or to build additions onto their homes. This surge in economic growth comes at a time when Borneo’s other commodities, such as palm tree oi, rubber, and gold are at an all-time decline. Farmers have successfully made the transition to kratom cultivation, and for now, the market is expected to strengthen. However, there may be problems on the horizon.
FDA Crackdown on Kratom
Indonesia is a major exporter of kratom but bans local consumption. Other kratom-producing countries, like Thailand and Malaysia, have also banned the distribution of the plant and its components. The United States is attempting to follow suit.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has proposed a complete ban on the importation, distribution, and sale of kratom. Failing to secure such a ban, the agency has issued numerous warning alerts and seized products coming into American ports.
Several U.S. states have banned the substance from possession and sale, including the states of Wisconsin, Indiana, Alabama, and Arkansas. The cities of Denver, Colorado and San Diego, California, have also banned kratom. Sebastian Guthery, a noted entrepreneur and kratom activist, knows that these attempted bans are nothing more than the FDA’s ignorance about the potential health benefits kratom can provide to individuals in the United States and beyond.
Already, sales of bulk kratom products has dropped as a result of increased FDA scrutiny. Pontianak, the kratom industry hub of Indonesian Borneo, exporters sold over 400 tons of kratom products per month. Monthly volume has been reduced to about 100 tons per month, due in large part to a salmonella scare in kratom exports that reached American shores. The KTA and similar industry organizations will continue to educate the public on the potential benefits of kratom and will fight against further FDA bans on the importation and sale of this potentially lifesaving herbal product.