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UBC research points to tropical plant as potential way to fight opioid crisis

Zach Walsh, associate professor of psychology at UBC Okanagan. (Photo courtesy UBC)

KELOWNA (NEWS 1130) – A leafy plant in the coffee family could help combat the opioid crisis, according to research from the University of British Columbia.

Researchers at UBC’s Okanagan campus and the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) reviewed 57 years of international scientific data and determined that kratom has a substantial history of use as an alternative to opioids. The tropical plant has been used recreationally and medicinally for hundreds of years in South East Asia.

Co-author Dr Zach Walsh, with UBC Okanagan, says it could help wean addicts off opioids because the plant gives a similar high without the same risks.

“It doesn’t cause respiratory depression, at least not in the types of doses that are regularly used that are causing all the fatalities around opioid use,” he says.

“If you talk to┬ápeople who use it, they say it is an opioid-like effect but just not as strong. It can produce a mild dependence but again the dependence like the high itself is nowhere near as pronounced as what we see with opioids.”

No clinical trials into kratom have been done yet.

“There are certainly a lot of anecdotal success stories of people saying ‘I was able to withdraw from opioids and kratom sure made it a whole lot easier’.”

But Walsh says the use of kratom is not without controversy.

“Over the past decade we have seen increasing interest in kratom as an effective way of easing pain and curbing opioid use,” says Walsh. “We are concerned that this potential might be overlooked amongst the hysteria and misinformation that often accompanies the emergence of an unfamiliar plant-based drug that does have some potential for misuse.”

The study was published recently in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.