In a meeting with President Joe Biden this week, the president of Indonesia urged the administration to lift a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) alert that broadly restricts imports of kratom to the U.S., according to a pair of advocacy groups.
Indonesia is one of the primary international exporters of kratom, a plant native to Southeast Asia that’s used for pain relief, managing the symptoms of opioid withdrawal and other purposes. The plant is currently unscheduled under U.S. law, but FDA issued an import alert in July that has seriously limited kratom imports from Canada, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo met with Biden for a bilateral meeting at the White House on Monday. According to the American Kratom Association (AKA) and the Kratom Coalition, Widodo used the opportunity to request administrative action to remove the FDA restrictions, emphasizing the economic and environmental consequences of the current kratom import policy for Indonesia.
The White House referred Marijuana Moment’s request for comment to the National Security Council (NSC). A spokesperson for NSC said they have “nothing to add on the Leaders’ conversation beyond the joint statement and fact sheet released on Monday” that do not explicitly mention kratom.
Read full release here: https://t.co/7mRwyvADrb
UPDATE: Indonesian President Widodo Met With President Biden and Promoted the Free Trade of Kratom as a Part of Indonesia's Free Trade Agenda to Reduce Trade Barriers Between the US and Indonesia pic.twitter.com/oJvGTljcEa
— American Kratom Association (@TheKratomAssn) November 15, 2023
The meeting comes about two months after Widodo’s chief of staff, Moeldoko, sent a letter to an official with FDA’s import operations division, stating that the restriction has had a “significantly negative impact on the Indonesian kratom farmers.” The letter also promised an “unwavering commitment” to working with FDA to “ensure the safety and quality of kratom products imported into the U.S. from Indonesia.”
A week before the Indonesian president’s White House meeting, the governor of the country’s West Kalimantan province sent a separate letter to Biden arguing that FDA’s import alert has “harmed the more than 250,000 kratom farmers and their families who have no other reasonable options for a livelihood.”
“In addition, this Import Alert poses a catastrophic climate impact threat because if [the alert] stays in place it will inevitably result in the deforestation of more than 21 million kratom trees in the highly sensitive Borneo rainforest,” the letter said, according to quotes included in AKA’s press release.
The reason for the potential environmental fallout is because Indonesian farmers say the most viable alternative to kratom would be converting land to produce palm oil that would require widespread deforestation in the Borneo rainforest region.
Former Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ), who serves as AKA’s board chair, said in a press release on Tuesday that “the FDA has improperly abused its import alert authority to create a de facto ban on kratom in the United States because the Agency cannot justify domestic scheduling of kratom that requires evidence and data.”
“If this unjustified import alert is allowed to stay in effect, it will have catastrophic economic and climate impacts,” he said.
The alert doesn’t fully ban kratom from being imported to the U.S., but it imposes new restrictions allowing for the detention and review of such products, which can prevent or seriously delay their arrival.
“The kratom import alert directly contradicts the Biden Administration’s goals for building strong trading relationships with Indonesia to offset the aggressive efforts by China to undermine U.S. objectives in the South Pacific region, and to promote strong climate policies,” Salmon said. “For every step forward the Biden Administration foreign policy has taken in this region, the FDA’s kratom import alert pushes us 10 steps back.”
“It is an unexplainable foreign policy blunder for the FDA to significantly undermine U.S. foreign policy priorities on climate change initiatives by imposing an import alert on kratom exported from Indonesia, a plant that supports the livelihood of more than 250,000 poor farmers and their families in the Borneo rainforest area,” the former congressman continued. “Worse, the import alert on kratom fails to consider any impact other than pursuing a self-serving expansion of FDA’s self-anointed crusade against a botanical supplement it does not favor.”
A separate newly established advocacy organization called the Kratom Coalition also added its voice to push for an end to the FDA restriction, pointing out that 97 percent of kratom that’s imported to the U.S. comes from Indonesia.
“FDA’s alert will have an enormously harmful impact on Indonesian farmers who rely on kratom production for their livelihoods,” Matthew Lowe, executive director of the coalition, said in a press release. “It will also impact American consumers, who rely on kratom to relieve anxiety, manage pain, and treat symptoms of opioid withdrawal.”
“In light of these considerations and the potential consequences to growers and their environment, we hope the administration takes President Widodo’s appeal seriously and reverses this decision,” he said. “A more productive and prudent approach would be to create a set of federal guidelines regulating the industry.”
For its part, FDA said in its July alert that the agency has “seen an increase in the number of shipments of dietary supplements and bulk dietary ingredients that are, or contain kratom,” and “there does not appear to be a history of use or other evidence of safety establishing that kratom will reasonably be expected to be safe as a dietary ingredient.”
FDA has previously attempted to domestically ban kratom by proposing its scheduling under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), but that effort stalled out. In 2021, the agency then solicited public input as it prepared to submit the U.S. perspective on a potential international kratom ban that never materialized.
A former White House drug czar under the Trump administration disclosed earlier this year that several top federal officials were responsible for intervening to prevent FDA from acting on its “bias” and banning kratom in the U.S.
Critics have said FDA misstated the facts on kratom to overstate its health risks, for example by failing to distinguish between health hazards associated with kratom itself and those caused by adulterants found in unregulated kratom products.
Meanwhile, federal lawmakers recently introduced legislation that would regulate kratom products across the country, renewing a similar push made late last session. The proposal, now titled the Kratom Consumer Protection Act, is expected to have bipartisan support in both chambers.
Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), the House sponsor of the bill, has been a particularly strong voice advocating for kratom research, emphasizing its therapeutic potential.
At a congressional hearing last year, for example, he expressed appreciation for the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) for funding research into the plant, stating that kratom has “helped many people to get off of opioids.”
The National Institutes on Health (NIH) also hosted a meeting last year to explore the therapeutic potential of the “controversial tree,” with an expert providing an overview of the science of kratom and what role it could play in mitigating the overdose crisis.
On the international level, the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) decided in 2021 not to recommend that kratom be globally prohibited, a victory for activists.
While the decision was based on a scientific review of the risk of dependence, abuse potential and therapeutic applications of kratom, advocates touted the fact that about 80,000 people submitted comments to the panel, sharing their perspectives and experiences with the plant-derived substance.
In July, the American Medical Association, in adopting a new slate of drug policy positions, said that people “who are using kratom only for personal use should not face criminal consequences.” The group added, however, that the substance should be evaluated by authorities “for its appropriateness for sale and potential oversight via the Controlled Substances Act, before it can be marketed, purchased, or prescribed.”
In 2020, the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) asked the public to help identify research that specifically looks at the risks and benefits of cannabinoids and kratom.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2020 separately received more than one thousand comments concerning kratom as part of another public solicitation.
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