In their infinite wisdom, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is expanding the war on drugs this week to include kratom, a medicinal plant seen by many as a lower-risk, herbal alternative to opioids.

Kratom, which comes from the leaves of a tree related to the coffee plant, has been used by Southeast Asians for centuries as both a stimulant and pain reliever. It has recently become popular in the United States, where it can be purchased over the counter in pills, as a powder or prepared as a tea. It often is used by people seeking to wean themselves off opioids or alcohol.

While more research is needed, there is at least some promising evidence that kratom can help people overcome opioid addiction. Regardless, there’s little scientific evidence that kratom itself dangerous. But thanks to the DEA prohibitionists’ ludicrous new rules, it will soon be considered a Schedule I controlled substance, alongside heroin, LSD and marijuana.

If the DEA truly were interested in combating America’s prescription opioid epidemic, which claimed more than 14,000 lives in 2014, this approach doesn’t make much sense. Not only will addicts be denied access to a lower-risk alternative, resulting in more overdoses, but the DEA’s prohibition will also stymy crucial research on a potentially life-saving drug.

In an attempt to delay the DEA’s final decision designating whether to classify kratom as a Schedule I substance, a bipartisan group of 51 representatives sent a letter to DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg this week, calling the DEA decision “a significant public health threat.”

At R Street, we’ve long advocated for a harm-reduction approach to combat tobacco-related deaths and illnesses, and I can’t help but see some parallels here to the FDA’s recent rules regulating e-cigarettes and vapor products. Although research has shown e-cigarettes are at least 95 percent less harmful than tobacco cigarettes and they’ve been used as an effective smoking-cessation tool for many smokers seeking to kick their habit, the FDA made rules final last month that regulate them even more stringently than tobacco cigarettes. These regulations may mean death-by-red-tape for the e-cigarette industry and will harm public health by driving smokers toward the deadliest form of nicotine delivery.

In both cases, government bureaucrats are using a guilty-until-proven-innocent approach to target substances or emerging technologies that are relatively unknown but very well may be lifesaving.

When it comes to Schedule I drug classifications, the stakes are even higher. E-cigarette manufacturers and vendors will be prohibited from selling unapproved e-cigarette devices under the FDA rules, and consumer access will be restricted. But kratom users may be deemed criminals and face harsh prison sentences for simple possession. In a country already plagued with overcriminalization and mass incarceration, locking people up for possessing a new, seemingly harmless and maybe even beneficial medicinal plant is the last thing we should be doing.

Both the e-cigarette and opioid-abuse conversations illustrate the need for a sensible, harm-reduction approach in public policy. While we can all agree that Americans would be safer if they consumed no tobacco or drugs whatsoever, it’s clear that some substances are more dangerous than others. It’s also pretty clear that demand for tobacco and drugs isn’t going away anytime soon. A compassionate and sensible approach would recognize these basic truths and ensure that people struggling with deadly addictions continue to have access to safer alternatives.

A harm-reduction approach wouldn’t just help individuals struggling would addiction; it also could alleviate many of the ills associated with America’s drug war and combat some of our most pernicious public-health crises like drug addiction, overdose and tobacco-related deaths and illnesses.

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