Kratom: Popular remedy to fight opioid withdrawal, but is it safe to use?

A highly controversial substance is now becoming a popular remedy for opioid withdrawal. It's called Kratom and it's legal in Arizona, but the FDA is now issuing a warning -- according to the agency, it's been linked to dozens of deaths.

Kratom comes from a tropical tree. Its leaves contain psychoactive mind altering opioid compounds. the herbal supplement is illegal in some states, but legal in Arizona.

"If you go to a smoke shop and buy it and then use it, what's the concentration? How do you know that? Did they test it? If I use it and I smoke it the same as if I eat it. If I use it and I smoke it and I eat it the same day and mix it with alcohol is that safe? There's a lot of safety checks that go into giving a medication to people," said Dr. Frank Lovecchio of the Banner Poison, Drug and Information Center.

The FDA issued a public health advisory recently over the use of Kratom, stating there's been a tenfold increase in calls made to U.S. poison control centers regarding the substance from 2010 to 2015 and claims 36 deaths are linked to the substance.

"At low doses, it's a stimulant. It makes you feel good or up, the same way caffeine does. At higher doses, it's a depressant or makes you feel no pain. The same way opiates do, or heroin or methadone," explained Lovecchio.

According to the FDA, it produces similar effects as a narcotic, carrying the risk of abuse, addiction and even death, something Dr. Lovecchio agrees with.

"If you ask if it's addictive, absolutely. It affects your same receptors that opiates do and what I mean by that is it will affect the receptors in your brain and make you desire heroin, or morphine, or Oxycodone or OxyCotin. You probably have to take more of it."

The unproved botanical substance originates from Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. It's said to treat pain, anxiety, depression and it's also becoming a popular remedy for opioid withdrawal.

"You don't have to be bound to Vicodin, Percocet or to OxyContin, that there is a safe, healthier alternative. The fact that Kratom has little to no toxicity level compared to any, there's not one that could be said the same for a man-made pharmaceutical opiate," said Tim Martin with Herb 'N Legend Smoke Shop in Phoenix.

Martin calls Kratom a natural miracle. There are many products and ways to take it. People smoke it, ingest it or drink it like tea. He says most people are using it for opioid withdrawal and only a small percentage use it recreationally.

"With Kratom, you're able to make that transition seamlessly and go 'cold turkey' so to speak. You can go directly to the Kratom without any of the sickness and really lead a normal life. Beautiful thing about that is after what we typically find is two weeks to a month of a Kratom supplement, you can completely stop the Kratom cold turkey with no side effects."

While the controversial opiate may be legal now in Arizona, we're just not sure what the future holds. Some argue it should remain legal, while others disagree.

"I think it's inevitable that it will be scheduled and it should be controlled at some point. It is as beneficial as some of the other natural substances just like cannabis and it should be available to everybody. It grows out of the ground and because of its miracle qualities we should cheer it," said Martin.

"Let's assume it's a good pain reliever and it works well, at the end of the day it acts just like another opiate. Quite frankly, I don't think we need another opiate. I think we need to find less ways to use opiates in America," said Lovecchio.

The FDA says there's no reliable evidence to support the use of Kratom as a treatment for opioid use disorder. There's currently no FDA approved therapeutic uses of the substance.