thailand-1940-kratom-opiumAnyone who has even a passing interest in Kratom will likely hear that it’s banned in the country it originates from; Thailand.  As always, there are a number of urban legends, rumors, and other stories, some of which are true, and some of which are complete fabrications.  This brief article is intended to clarify the facts behind this amazing plant and its banning in Thailand in 1943.

The 1930’s and the 1940’s were a tumultuous time in Thailand on many levels. They were marked by a military dictatorship that bludgeoned the citizens of Thailand from the 1930’s up to the 1970’s.  The military came to power in the bloodless Siamese revolution of 1932, which transformed the government of Siam (Thailand) from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy.  The new regime of 1932 produced a constitution in December of 1932, which was Siam’s first.  It included a National Assembly, that promised that full democratic elections sometime in the 1940s.

By 1939, political unrest had reached a pinnacle.  In that year, forty political opponents, both monarchists and democrats, were arrested, and after rigged trials eighteen were executed, the first political executions in Siam in over a century. Many others were exiled. The government launched a campaign against the Chinese business class, closing anything Chinese, while taxes were raised to alarming levels.  A man named Luang Phibunsongkhram was in power during this time.

Phibun used the exact propaganda techniques that were used by Hitler and Mussolini o build political power.  Aware of the power of mass media, the government’s monopoly on radio broadcasting was also used to shape popular support for the regime. During this time, Phibun passed a number of authoritarian laws which gave the government the power of almost unlimited arrest and complete press censorship.

Seething within the underbelly of this political turmoil was the ever-present black market.  Not surprisingly, one of the largest black market trades was the opium trade.  Knowing how profitable it was, the Thai government passed a series of laws that levied duties and taxes from every aspect of the opium trade that they could; from the grower, to the manufacturer, to the distributor, to the shop owner and even the end consumer.  It was a “cash cow” for the government.

With this boom in opium consumption, there was also a boom in opium addicts, opium-related deaths,and general public health concerns that come with any drug, licit or illicit.  The government was clearly in the opium trade, as it was profiting heavily from it.  With the amount of money that was generated from their taxes and levies, this was an aspect of money generation that was worth protecting.

Well, in the fields of Thailand, where workers often toiled in the fields for 16-18 hours a day, often with no days off, there was an amazing plant that helped them get through their days.  This plant was known as Kratom (Mitragyna speciosa).   not only did it help mitigate the pain they felt from all of the hard physical labor, it provided them with a mild sense of calm, of peace, to help them get through their day.

In fact, Kratom was often referred to the “poor man’s marijuana”, as it became associated with field workers who couldn’t afford the more expensive Cannabis that was widely available.  From a few pieces of literature I’ve found on the subject, if a man was asking for a woman’s hand in marriage, he was held in higher regard if we was a “Kratom chewer” rather than a “Cannabis smoker”.  That meant he was a hard worker, dedicated to family values, and not afraid of work in general.

Kratom spread like wildfire across the working class people of Thailand, and they were using this widely-available, often-free, safe, non-addicting, natural plant instead of opium.  In fact, what was even more alarming to those with conflicting interests, is that many of these new opium addicts who provided easy and reliable income to the government, were finding respite from their addictions by using Kratom to alleviate their symptoms. 

In other words, as early as the 1930’s, the people of Thailand had discovered that Kratom was a powerful means of helping them with their opium addictions.  Not only did Kratom tress grow everywhere in Thailand, it was easy to boil down a few leaves, and make a “Kratom Ball”; the most common form of ingestion of this plant at the time.

War broke out in 1942; the East Asian War as history has called it. When war breaks out, it’s terrible for the economy, and all of the taxes from the opium trade that the government had enjoyed suddenly vaporized.  The government raced to find ways of bringing back the cash cow they had enjoyed as a result of the opium trade.  One of the first things they did, was look to see if there was any competition in this particular market.

Sure enough, Kratom, which had swept the nation, and was accompanied by little to no adverse reactions or hospital visits of any kind (unlike opium), was now seen as a threat to the massive amounts of cash bring brought in because of the opium trade. Kratom was one of the “low hanging” fruits, and and easy target:

A member of the House of Representatives from Lampang in a special meeting on 7 January 1943 (Police Major General Pin Amornwisaisoradej) said this: “Taxes for opium are high while kratom is currently not being taxed. With the increase of those taxes, people are starting to use kratom instead and this has had a visible impact on our government’s income.”(1)
An act was passed called “The Kratom Act”, which criminlaized Kratom.  By now, its use was so widespread (it had been part of Thailand culture for over 3,000 years), that anyone in the working class was at least familiar with Kratom, had a friend, family member, or even relied on its safe, effective use themselves.  Kratom tress were grown with impunity, the millions of acres of naturally-occurring Kratom trees flourished, and leaves were chewed openly in public without any fear of arrest.  So, it seems that the Kratom Act was never really enforced.

Fast forward to 1979:

In 1979, kratom was included in the “Thai Narcotics Act“, under Schedule 5 (the least restrictive and punitive level).  It was added to the same classification that Cannabis and psilocybin mushrooms belonged to.  The Kratom Act had severe penalties for ingrsting Kratom, and this was intended to reduce the sentences and the punishment for those found to be in violation of the Kratom Act.

So, although Kratom is still criminalized in its home country, it’s at least on a level with other mis-categorized natural herbal products, which allows for the possibility of a policy change that would finally place Kratom back where it belongs; as a safe, effective herbal supplement that has a wide range of medical benefits, many of which we outline in detail in our “Kratom Medical Benefits” article.


Series on Legislative Reform of Drug Policies Nr . 13 Apr il 2011 “Kratom in Thailand” Decriminalisation and Community Control? By Pascal Tanguay
(1). Asnangkornchai, S. & Siriwong, A. (eds.) 2005. Kratom Plant in Thai Society: Culture, Behavior, Health, Science, Laws.