Authorities claim the popular herbal drug poses potentially deadly risks, but there are big problems with their evidence.
By Nick Wing
John Grove stood out among the dozens of fatal drug overdose victims the Georgia Bureau of Investigation examined in November 2016.
It wasn’t just the 34-year-old’s hulking frame. At 6 feet 4 inches and nearly 270 pounds at autopsy, Grove’s muscular body showed few signs of the years he’d spent battling opioid addiction.
But when his toxicology test came back in January 2017, it revealed something unusual. There were no opioids in his system, nor were there cocaine or benzodiazepines, which are now responsible for the overwhelming majority of drug overdoses. Instead, Grove tested positive for a single substance: mitragynine, best known as the psychoactive ingredient of kratom, an herbal drug derived from the leaves of a Southeast Asian tree related to coffee.
And it was mitragynine that had caused Grove to collapse on the floor of his coworker’s bathroom and die, GBI concluded.
It was an odd and seemingly unprecedented determination. Scientists say there’s scant evidence that mitragynine causes fatal overdoses, and many kratom advocates claim that overdosing on the substance alone is impossible. Although authorities have come forward with reports of deaths supposedly related to kratom, all of the cases they’ve cited publicly have involved the presence of other, often more dangerous drugs, making it nearly impossible to discern kratom’s role in the fatalities.
But mitragynine was the only substance on Grove’s toxicology test. His death, listed as an “acute mitragynine intoxication,” could have provided an important window into how this drug supposedly kills humans when taken in isolation.
HuffPost took a closer look at Grove’s case and other “kratom-related deaths” in Georgia. We found that not only is the state using sloppy reporting on these deaths, likely overestimating the apparent harms of kratom, but the state also appears to be rushing to blame mitragynine for the deaths of people like Grove, even when there may be more likely culprits.
Grove was one of the first deceased individuals in Georgia to test positive for mitragynine, following GBI’s decision in November 2016 to begin routinely screening for the substance amid mounting concerns about kratom, according to records the agency provided to HuffPost.
There were four such kratom-related deaths in the state in 2016, according to GBI; and 11 more so far this year. Those figures recently led the state’s chief medical examiner to warn that kratom is killing people in Georgia.
But when HuffPost examined GBI’s data, it became clear that the agency is relying on a loose interpretation of what it means for a death to be “related” to kratom. In fact, it appears to be counting every fatal drug overdose in which mitragynine is present as a so-called kratom-related death.
Of the 15 cases GBI has documented, only four individuals tested positive for mitragynine alone. Grove was among them, though HuffPost has learned additional details which show that even in cases like his, mitragynine may not be the most probable killer.
Every other supposed kratom-related death in Georgia also involved additional substances, often including much stronger drugs like heroin, prescription drugs or other potent opioid analogs like fentanyl ― sometimes taken together.
In two of the cases GBI considers kratom-related deaths, the subjects tested positive for eight different substances, including opioids, antidepressants and other powerful prescription drugs. Due to the nature of GBI’s data collection methods, it considers these deaths to be kratom-related.
This system, which indiscriminately lumps cases into the same category despite glaring dissimilarities, says nothing about how ― or even if ― GBI determined mitragynine had actually contributed to each death.
GBI declined to comment to HuffPost about Grove’s examination, including what had led to the determination that he had died of “acute mitragynine intoxication,” as well as what such an incident actually looks like.
Using these loose reporting standards, officials in Georgia have been able to claim they have the data necessary to classify kratom as a potentially deadly drug.
But emerging science has found mitragynine to be largely benign, especially when taken in low or moderate doses. Additional research is needed to identify potential health conditions or genetic predispositions that could cause complications for kratom users. After all, if officials are genuinely interested in preventing harm related to kratom, they must first identify with certainty what that harm is.
To read the full story and see a supporting video, please see the original article from Nick Wing on Huffington Post by clicking here.