Zach Walsh, associate professor of psychology at UBC Okanagan.

UBCO Study: Potential aid in combating opioid crisis

UBC Okanagan researcher in Kelowna says a tropical plant may have some answers

As the opioid crisis in Canada reaches alarming new heights, claiming the lives of 2,800 Canadians in 2016, new research suggests that the controversial psychoactive plant kratom could help provide the relief patients, clinicians, and policymakers are looking for.

The study, led by 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, and that it may also help manage withdrawal symptoms among people trying to reduce their opioid use.

Kratom is a tropical plant form the coffee family that grows in South East Asia and has been used medicinally for centuries.

However, according to Zach Walsh, associate professor of psychology at UBC Okanagan and co-author on the study, 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.”

Study lead author Marc Swogger, associate professor in URMC’s department of psychiatry, agrees. He says that clinicians and the public are receiving conflicting or confusing information that seems to be unfounded.

“This study clarifies that there is no good scientific basis for claims that kratom causes psychosis, suicide, or violence, and the available data do not indicate that kratom is a significant public health problem,” says Swogger.

According to Walsh, many individuals are being left behind without effective alternative treatment as many of the current approaches to addressing the opioid epidemic are falling flat.

“We need to explore all options, and our findings suggest it’s time to carefully examine the potential of this ancient plant,” says Walsh. “Our review suggests that kratom is not as powerful or addictive as widely used opioids and is far less likely to lead to fatal overdoses. We would be remiss not to take a closer look.”

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

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