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Drug expert says ‘kratom’ substance seized from two Edmonton stores helped wean him off opioids

EDMONTON—Public health experts are questioning Health Canada’s seizure of a product that some say has helped wean them off opioids.

Health Canada seized several Saj brand kratom products from two Edmonton stores — a Saj location in Sherbrooke Plaza and a north-side Jupiter head shop — earlier this month, saying the herbal supplement “may pose serious health risks.”

Sold in various capsules and powders, the herbal supplement kratom has gained popularity as an alternative treatment for pain, anxiety and drug dependence. (MARY ESCH / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Scott Bernstein, a senior policy analyst with the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, said kratom played a big role in his recovery from two broken vertebrae in his neck, after he fell off playground equipment in Osoyoos, B.C., last fall.

He was prescribed hydromorphone and was taking high doses to deal with the pain, causing “fogginess” that made some daily tasks difficult.

Bernstein read that some people had used kratom as a substitute pain reliever, so he found a dispensary in Vancouver and gave it a try.

“My experience with it, it was just a very gentle drug where I could take it and just sort of imparted a sense of well-being as well as pain relief, but I could also function and do my job and go about life without feeling like I was disconnected with reality too much,” he said.

“I didn’t experience any negative side-effects at all … I think it’s something that we should be promoting and not restricting.”

Bernstein said kratom helped him reduce his opioid use until he could stop taking opioids entirely.

Kratom is a tropical evergreen tree related to coffee plants that is used in traditional medicine in Southeast Asia, but there is little scientific research on its effectiveness or safety.

It is typically sold in capsule or powder form, and is marketed online as a pain reliever and for recreational use.

In February, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration raised concerns over kratom’s similarities to opioids and stated there is no evidence it is safe or effective to treat any condition.

According to Health Canada, kratom can have narcotic and stimulant-like effects and has “potential for abuse and dependence,” with side-effects including drowsiness, nausea, vomiting, seizures, liver toxicity and rapid heartbeat.

Officials say they are working with the Canada Border Services Agency to stop kratom products from entering Canada.

But Bernstein said that’s an overreaction.

“Once something is used, a drug that’s not something they’re comfortable or familiar with, the first instinct for government is to crack down on it,” Bernstein said.

From a public health perspective, he said every drug policy decision Canada makes should be made through the lens of the opioid crisis.

Officials need to leave space for different ways to combat the crisis, he said, and kratom could be one more tool for some people who have become dependent on opioids.

“If there’s a drug out there that people are using, and anecdotally they’re saying this is actually helping people wean off of opioids … we really need to seriously say, ‘OK, let’s create a little space to use this,’” he said.

“The reaction of coming in and saying it’s illegal and cutting off access to it is actually the opposite of public health. It’s harming people.”

A Health Canada spokesperson said the agency first became aware of the substance entering Canada in 2012.

In June 2017, health officials seized kratom from a Jupiter store on Whyte Avenue and Bogart’s Pipes and Papers in north Edmonton.

It is currently labelled as an unauthorized health product, but Health Canada is collecting data to determine whether additional controls are required, which could potentially move kratom under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

Rebecca Haines-Saah, an assistant professor in the department of community health sciences at the University of Calgary, said there is not a lot of knowledge or consensus on kratom in the public health community.

She said making the substance illegal and seizing it from stores won’t necessarily deter its use.

Haines-Saah suggested legalizing and regulating might be a more responsible approach, so the product can be safer for people buying it.

Unregulated products can potentially be contaminated with pesticides, mould, or fungus.

She said the opioid crisis has highlighted the fact that illicit markets “are very flexible and adaptable to supplying people with something else when the substance they need is taken away.”

“The more you tightly regulate these kinds of substances, the more you drive them underground,” she said. “And that elevates the risk, because it’s even more unregulated and even more deeply entrenched in the illicit market.”

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