SAN ANTONIO – Most people have never seen a Kratom plant in person, but the big green leaves are the cause of a lot of controversy. The Drug Enforcement Agency plans to make it a Schedule I drug as soon as Friday.
While many medical professionals agree, Kratom users are upset, claiming the herb has a medical benefit.
The plant sits peacefully in a young, disabled veteran's San Antonio front yard, but soon, it will be illegal.
"I found it online just searching alternatives for pain relief," said the veteran, who didn't want to be named.
He said Kratom relieves chronic pain caused by a Navy training injury.
"It's a constant, kind of shooting pain in my leg, and neuropathic pain is very hard to treat. It would kind of be hard to get out of bed," he said.
The veteran said he now uses Kratom as a pain treatment. He bought a plant from an online vendor and harvests the leaves.
"I cut them and then let them dry out. You can either crush them up and put them into tea, or you can just put it like a dip in your lip," he said. "They help with the pain, but it also gives you energy. It's like having coffee in the morning. It's mild."
Kratom can also be taken in powder form, or capsule form. It's sold in those forms at smoke shops across San Antonio. The majority of it is sold online through forums.
The DEA recently labeled all forms of Kratom dangerous, announcing its intention to classify the ingredients in Kratom as Schedule I, alongside drugs like heroin and LSD.
"It's not a medication. It's not approved by the FDA. No one has done studies on it to show any efficacy. No one has proven that it works. We have many anecdotal cases, but no evidence, so it's a tough decision to say," said Dr. Shawn Varney, with the South Texas Poison Center.
Varney is also an ER doctor at University Hospital, and a faculty member at the UT Health Science Center.
Varney agrees with the DEA's decision, comparing the Kratom's effects to opioids.
"In the emergency departments, patients are presenting with rapid heart rate, high blood pressure, altered mental status, just not acting right, comatose, seizures and death," he said.
The DEA lists 15 Kratom-related deaths in the last two years.
Many smoke shops that sell Kratom told KSAT that they are trying to clear the products off their shelves. Some aren't even selling it anymore.
While the DEA can finalize the Kratom scheduling as early as Friday, it could be longer. Still, the shops don't want to take any risks.
Meanwhile, hundreds of Kratom users have signed a petition, asking the DEA not to ban the substance.