MIRACLE treatment or dangerous drug? Indonesia cashes in on Kratom. The sweltering backwaters of Indonesian Borneo have become the unlikely ground zero for the global production and export of  Kratom, a tree leaf hailed by some as miracle cure for everything from opioid addiction to anxiety.

Part of the coffee family, the leaf has been used for centuries in Southeast Asia and Papua New Guinea for its  pain-relieving  and mildly stimulating effects but it is now sold  in powder form and exported worldwide - alarming some health regulators  who have raised concerns about safety.

Kratom stimulates the same brain receptors as morphine, although it produces much milder effects. ''I take Kratom and have had no problems. Every strain has its benefits - some help you relax, other can treat insomnia or treat drug addiction. Some help increase stamina,'' grower Faisal Perdona told AFP.

Fellow farmer Gusti Prabu, who now exports 10 tonnes of the drug a month, agreed.

''Our ancestors used Kratom and there were no negative side affects. It can help eliminate drug addiction and help people detox,'' he explained.

But its popularity is causing concerns. the drug is unregulated, and has little clinical testing to assess its safety or side effects. Kratom is already banned for domestic consumption in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand, though the former allows its export unprocessed form.

Health authorities in the United States - now the drugs top importer - have linked the consumption of the plant and its derivative to dozens of deaths, warning it could aggravate a deadly opioid epidemic gripping parts of the country.

Compounds found in Kratom are opioids, which expose users to the same risks of addiction and death as illicit opiates, according to the US Food and Drug Administration.

But for farmers in Kappuas Hulu, West Kulimanton - the centre of production - demand for Kratom is such that have moved away from traditional commodities such as rubber and palm oil to start growing the tree, turning it into a major cash crop.

And at the main post office Pontianak, the key trading part of Indonesian Borneo, it's clear the health warnings have done little to dampen interest.

''Around 90 percent of our shipments from West Kalimantan province are Kratom that are that's been sold to the United States,'' post office head Zaenal Hamid said.

As many as five million Americans use the drug and that number is growing, according to the American Kratom Association.

Data from 2016 showed that the region was shipping some 400 tonnes abroad every month - worth about $130 million annually at current global prices of some $30 a kilogramme.

Most Kratom customers are reached through online platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Chinese marketplace Alibaba.

The trend for alternative medicine has been credited with increasing interest in Kratom from Europe and America, where it is usually consumed as a tea or in capsules. [Agencies]


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