The US Drug Enforcement Agency has decided to make another plant illegal in the US. But the harm caused by prohibition is almost certain to be worse than the alleged harm caused by the plant itself.
The plant in question is called kratom. According to the DEA itself, the plant is used variously to treat “chronic pain and opioid withdrawal symptoms, with users reporting its effects to be comparable to prescription opioids.” It is also reportedly used by some as a recreational drug. Up until now, the plant has been completely unregulated, and growing in popularity. The new DEA decision will place kratom in the same legal category as heroin and ecstasy.
For more on this story, we recommend this write-up from Reason, which explains exactly how the DEA arrived at its conclusion that this plant was an “imminent hazard to public safety”. Spoiler, they assumed their own conclusion:
And if you’re in the mood to get real good and angry about it, here’s a second article which discusses the DEA’s incredible response to the outrage their announcement has inspired. This piece also explains why, once the substance is banned, the ban becomes self-perpetuating.
Why This Matters
This story highlights absurdity of drug prohibition. In this case, the DEA is effectively telling thousands of kratom consumers that they are incapable of making their own decisions about their health. Instead, the DEA knows what’s in the best interest of each and every American–and that is to completely abstain from consuming a natural substance that has been used by humans for thousands of years.
Recreational users might be able to switch to another substance, but the DEA’s decision will leave many medicinal users of the plant in a lurch. They can choose to continue using kratom and become a criminal, or they can switch to an alternative remedy that they find less desirable than kratom–perhaps due to cost, side effects, inadequate relief, etc. Whatever the reason, kratom users now face a deeply unpleasant choice that was entirely unnecessary. No doubt, at least some will choose to continue taking kratom, and hundreds or perhaps thousands of nonviolent felons will be ushered into existence come October 1, 2016. (Note, it’s difficult to find precise data on kratom usage, but a petition opposing the ban rapidly gained more than 100,000 signatures, suggesting its US users number at least in the thousands.)
This story is also a textbook example of a victimless crime. Purchasing kratom from a willing seller is a voluntary exchange in which both parties gain something of value. Consuming kratom is another act that only directly affects the user who chose to consume it. No force is used, no victim is created, and no rights are violated in either of these acts. The DEA is going to make them illegal anyways.
But while kratom consumers will certainly be harmed by this legislation, there are some winners. Obviously, the DEA benefits from having an expanded mission, and a new batch of “criminals” to pursue and seize assets from. The other winners are the pharmaceutical companies, who will benefit from higher demand now that a competing product has been confined to the black market by the DEA. And really, what matters more? Protecting profits of Big Pharma from competion or the freedom and well-being of regular Americans that chose an alternative medicine? It’s nice to see the DEA has its priorities straight.