The far-reaching limitations on the voice of scientists, in sharp contrast to their compelling expertise, have become increasingly troublesome in the legal realm. One example that has been at the center of media attention involves the legal status of kratom. Kratom is the main source of mitragynine, a novel compound pharmacologically similar to many high-profile Schedule I substances under the Controlled Substance Act (CSA), including heroin. It has been long established that mitragynine does not activate β-arrestin, the protein largely responsible for the notorious side effects of Schedule I substances. This finding renders mitragynine a promising therapeutic alternative to traditional pain relievers and therefore warrants further research endeavors.
However, mitragynine has been under constant administrative pressure to be regulated as a Schedule I substance, mainly due to its pharmacological similarities to existing Schedule I substances. This would render mitragynine inaccessible for research purposes. Here, a deadlock is created: the threat of the imminent scheduling of mitragynine discourages potential funding for long-term clinical trials, the results of which are essential to the legal recognition of mitragynine. Without legal recognition, mitragynine is, in turn, under constant threat of being scheduled. (The funding situation is further discouraged by the unpatentability of mitragynine due to its main source, kratom, being a natural plant.)
Many scientists are critical of the lawmakers by emphasizing, rightfully, the authority of scientific evidence that overwhelmingly counters the impending regulation of mitragynine. But there are also proper legal rationales for scheduling mitragynine despite the countering scientific evidence. By advocating for the expedited “immunity” of mitragynine, scientists and others are overlooking the long-standing comprehensive legal process for evaluating novel substances with which mitragynine was not treated unfairly. The current statutory turmoil with mitragynine (and more prominently, cannabis) may suggest that a major overhaul for CSA is long overdue in light of the vast advancement in biochemical sciences and the unveiled complexities of chemical substances since its enactment in 1971. Yet, the amending process can be rightfully time-consuming. Thus, resolving the mitragynine stalemate should consider not only the best act possible in this specific case, but also the democratic legal process that all acts must observe. Here, the heightened scientific and even social attention given to mitragynine due to its potential as the “savior” for the ongoing opioid crisis may not be adequate to absolve it from the fair and extensive legal procedure afforded to all novel substances.
This case also exemplifies the growing tension between science and law in the burgeoning legal domain where science is increasingly powerful, and the distinct modes of thinking from the two disciplines tend only to aggravate the problem. We urgently need balanced treatment of scientific voices in relevant legal fields, which are expanding today in both the number and level of significance. Here, individuals with training in both law and science are more equipped to render the most informed compromises, whereas those trained in only one of the two areas are more inclined to be biased.