Northeast Mississippi is on the front lines of an effort by state and local law enforcement to ban a legal, but unregulated herbal product called kratom.
In recent months, around 28 Mississippi counties and cities – all in the northeast region of the state – have acted to criminalize the possession and sale of kratom, which is produced from the leaves of a tropical tree and variously consumed as a powder, a liquid or as capsules.
The list of municipalities that have banned kratom include the City of Fulton and Town of Mantachie. Leaders in both municipalities banned the sale and possession of kratom products in March.
The Itawamba County Board of Supervisors also passed a countywide ban on kratom in mid-March. Those caught with it face a misdemeanor charge and a $1,000 fine.
The Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics has played a key role lobbying local governments over the issue, as has a citizen advocacy group from Lowndes County.
“Through communications with community leaders and their local elected officials, the effort to ban kratom took flight,” said MBN Director John Dowdy.
Kratom is legal at the federal level in the United States, but the Food and Drug Administration has issued warnings about it. The federal Drug Enforcement Agency has considered moves to make it illegal.
In the absence of any federal action, states have instituted a patchwork of laws across the country. Six states have banned it. The Mississippi legislature did not take up a proposed ban earlier this year, and kratom remains legal here at the state level.
Supporters of kratom say it provides safe, non-addictive pain relief and can also combat anxiety disorders. Some kratom users also say it manages the withdrawal symptoms of potent opiate drugs.
Law enforcement, however, has described kratom as addictive and dangerous.
A spokesperson for the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics said the agency believes kratom is linked to 12 deaths in the state, in the following counties: Covington, DeSoto, Hinds, Lafayette, Lamar, Lee, Perry, Pontotoc, Stone and Union.
Most of the deaths MBN claims as kratom-linked involved the presence of other drugs.
In an advisory, the FDA warned that “kratom, which affects the same opioid brain receptors as morphine, appears to have properties that expose users to the risks of addiction, abuse and dependence.”
In the face of bans sweeping the largely rural Northeast Mississippi, kratom users have touted its benefits.
Patrick Sudduth, 27, lives in Fulton and has suffered from migraines and cluster headaches much of his life. He has seen doctors and taken numerous medications.
“I’ve tried literally everything,” Sudduth said.
While researching herbal treatments for his headaches, Sudduth first learned of kratom.
Now, after about three years of regular use, Sudduth said he continues to find kratom effective at treating his headaches, as well as back pain.
He doesn’t believe the herbal productive is as addictive as alcohol or cigarettes.
Sudduth appeared before the Itawamba County Board of Supervisors in early April to push county leaders to reconsider their ban on kratom, at least in its wholly-natural form.
“I understand what you are doing. What you saw of it was at a gas station,” Sudduth told supervisors. “That is not actually what kratom is. That is a synthetic product mixed with something else and put in a 5-Hour Energy bottle.”
Lee County is the most populous of Northeast Mississippi’s counties, and is the most notable holdout with respect to a ban, though that could change soon.
This week, supervisors will likely see a draft of an ordinance to ban kratom and are expected to schedule a public hearing on the issue.
The cities of Saltillo and Nettleton are also looking at the issue.
The city of Tupelo has yet to take any action on the issue, and has not publicly deliberated on the matter.
Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson has been outspoken in his support of a ban. He said MBN contacted him about the issue, as have parents in the area concerned about the use of kratom by their children.
“I don’t want us to be a central hub for people who can’t buy it elsewhere,” Johnson said.
MBN looks poised to expand its anti-kratom efforts beyond Northeast Mississippi.
“In Northeast Mississippi, as well as other parts of the state, kratom has become a significant drug issue,” Dowdy said. “We will likely expand and continue the effort to other areas where the data show a need.”
Before the bans, kratom-derived products were commonly available at gas stations in the Northeast Mississippi region. Some users, like Sudduth, buy kratom powder over the internet.
Sudduth said he shares concerns about the legitimacy of some gas station products marketed as kratom, which often include additives.
Rather than sweeping bans, however, Sudduth said he invites regulation to ensure public safety, while allowing access for people who find kratom beneficial.
“I’ve never heard a single person who uses kratom oppose regulation,” Sudduth said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Itawamba County Times General Manager Adam Armour contributed to this story.