Won’t somebody please think of the children? Why Are Effective Herbs Banned? That is the common refrain when potent and effective herbs and other plants are made illegal. Countless times we have seen this happen, notably in the cases of cannabis, ephedra and now most recently kratom.
However, despite the claims of being for the benefit of the health and safety of the American population, is this actually the case?
In functional medicine and nutrition, we always talk about getting to the root cause of a problem.
What is at the root of making these botanicals illegal: is it the official story that they are dangerous, addictive and subject to potential abuse, or is it more likely that it’s cutting into someone’s profits.
Occam’s razor says that we should accept the simplest explanation, but unfortunately, that does not always lead to the correct explanation. So come with me on a little journey.
Cannabis (Cannabis sativa)
Cannabis has over 6000 years of human cultivation and use . As we discussed in my cannabidiol article, in terms of benefits for cannabis, out of over 500 compounds found in the plant, even CBD alone is associated anti-carcinogenic, anticonvulsant, antiemetic, anti-inflammatory, antipsychotic, anxiolytic, cardiovascular, immunomodulatory and neuroprotective benefits [1, 2].
Yet despite this, there has been a propaganda-fueled “war on cannabis” since the 1930’s. Demonized for “possessing an ability” to induce insanity and depravation, tempt women and drive men to murder, it has been quite the uphill battle since the time of those smear campaigns.
Fortunately, there has been an ever growing legalization of both medicinal and recreational marijuana, but it still remains classified as a Schedule I narcotic, alongside heroin, stifling potential clinical research and therapeutic use [3, 4, 5, 6].
To meet the standards set forth by the DEA for a Schedule I drug, it much “have no currently accepted medical treatment use in the U.S., have a high potential for abuse and have a lack of accepted safety” .
Regarding potential for abuse, this is undefined and despite the assumptions, does not inherently mean it has addictive properties . Literally anything can have a high potential for abuse, including all of those wonderful legal drugs like alcohol, tobacco and prescription medications.
Ephedra (Ephedra sinica)
Known in traditional Chinese medicine as Ma Huang (which literally means yellow hemp), ephedra has been been used medicinally for over 5000 years and has been argued to be the “oldest medicinal plant with a history of uninterrupted use” [14, 15].
It was used traditionally to induce fevers, relieve coughs and combat colds  and there is Western literature dating back almost 100 years for the effective use of the primary alkaloid, ephedrine, for asthma and whooping cough .
In fact, recent literature has even indicated roles for it as an antiviral combatting influenza (as effectively with better tolerability to neuraminidase inhibitors, such as Tamiflu) [16, 18, 19], as an immunomodulator in inflammatory and allergic diseases beyond asthma and even potentially antiproliferative agent in combatting cancer .
However, similar to the case with cannabis, in the late 1990’s to early 2000’s a major smear campaign was conducted against ephedra, until the eventual ban on ephedrine containing supplements.
The primary contentions were that it was resulting in cardiovascular incidents and that it and fellow ephedra alkaloid, pseudoephedrine, was being used as a precursor for the production of meth- and other amphetamines.
Biochemically, ephedrine is very similar to adrenaline, which makes sense as one of its primary mechanisms of action is by way of indirectly increasing adrenergic receptor activity, resulting in increased noradrenaline .
It is also similar to the amphetamine class of drugs, which again makes sense insomuch as they all exert effects on the central nervous system.
However, time for a pop quiz.
Which of these is currently used in asthma inhalers?
Which of these is currently prescribed by the handful to restless children under the name Adderall?
Which of these is currently the main ingredient in the life-saving EpiPen that has come under much scrutiny due to potential price gouging?
Which of these is currently also prescribed to restless children under the name Desoxyn?
Do, do, do, doooo…
And the answers are: ephedrine, amphetamine, adrenaline and methamphetamine, respectively.
So all of these have “safe” and effective uses under the current medical paradigm.
However, only two of these occur naturally: adrenaline is produced in the body and ephedrine is produced in the ephedra plant.
Now to be clear, ephedra as a whole plant and in the herb form is not currently illegal, nor is ephedrine placed on the Controlled Substance Schedule list (amphetamine and methamphetamine are both Schedule II drugs), but the purchase of ephedrine is very tightly regulated.
As such, when is the last time you saw ephedra on the counter of your local pharmacy or health food store?
Practically everything these days is sure to label itself as ephedra-free, simply dismissing over 5000 years of continual therapeutic use.
Yet you can walk into any pharmacy with a prescription and pick them up, once again establishing: No! Don’t take that plant, unless it’s in one of our drugs!
Kratom (Mitragyna speciosa)
Now to the herb of the hour, Mitragyna speciosa, more commonly known as kratom. Unlike the previous two entries, kratom is relatively novel, with only several hundred years of use versus their thousands of years .
The reason being? It’s primary traditional and current uses are in the management of pain, and in reducing the withdrawal effects of opium, morphine, heroin and opioid prescription pain medications .
However, what is interesting about kratom is that it’s effects are dose-dependent. At low doses, it can act like a stimulant like ephedra and at higher does can act like a relaxant and pain reliever and mood stabilizer like cannabis.
Similar to ephedra, mitragynine can stimulate the adrenergic receptors, specifically the α-2 receptors [22, 23, 27, 28]. Whereas similar to cannabis, it has roles in mood stabilization by regulating the 5-HT serotonergic receptors [22, 23, 27, 28]; to be clear though, CBD activates the 5HT-1A receptors, while kratom inhibits the 5-HT2A receptors, but both result in the same net effect .
Often derided as being practically the same as opium and its derivatives, kratom is not in the same genus, not the same family, not even the same order, but they do belong to the same class, Magnoliopsida. Botanically, it is much closer to coffee, as both belong to the Rubiaceae family. For those who don’t remember their mnemonics, that was of course “King Phillip Came Over For Good Soup” or Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species.
To put that in context, humans are in the same class, Chordata, as all of the other mammals, birds, reptiles and fish, all the way down to things like salps and sea squirts. Needless, to say they are pretty far apart.
From a chemical standpoint, you can see below, mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitraginine are structurally very unique when compared to other opioids, such as morphine and codeine. They also appear to have a different pharmacology.
So biochemically, while they all interact with μ- and δ-opioid receptors, kratom’s alkaloid’s have a higher binding affinity for the κ-opioid receptors [23, 29]. In fact, the κ-opioid receptor system is associated with addiction reductions [30, 31], thereby providing the mechanism by which kratom is effective at combating heroin, morphine and prescription pain killer addiction.
So once again, we have a plant with tremendous therapeutic potential being pushed to the wayside in the name of “safety,” yet things like alcohol and tobacco are totally fine. As are refined sugars and flours, as well as processed seed oils. People are allowed to get into vehicles weighing multiple tons and drive at high speeds (yes I understand there are speed limits). Everyone in the country (minus felons) has the right to own a gun.
The point is, potentially dangerous activities are allowed on a regular basis. Why is it that these herbs are illegal and/or banned?
It’s not for the children.
We can teach them to drive and how to responsibly use a firearm.
We can teach them to make healthy food choices.
We can teach them to avoid alcohol in excess and to avoid tobacco.
So why can’t we have the same freedom with these herbs?
The reason is exactly the reason we want them. They are effective and they cut into the bottom line of a multi-billion-dollar industry. PERIOD.
The hemp industry cut into the fabric industries bottom line and medical cannabis cuts into the pain killer and mental health prescription drug industries bottom line. Ephedra cuts into the wallet of the immune, allergy and respiratory prescription drug industries. Kratom covers a lot of the same markets are cannabis and actually helps get people off of prescription pain killers.
The DEA is now only going after kratom because they see the writing on the wall with the growing movement for the legalization of cannabis.
Ephedra saved my life more times than I can count as a child. Cannabis and kratom extracts eased my father’s pain from a broken hip while laying in a bed dying of lung cancer more effectively than opioid prescription pain killers.
So the next time someone says that these herbs are illegal because they are dangerous and that we should just think of the children… You know where to tell them to go.
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