Aloha, kava lovers, Kava Guru here! As you all know, I will always champion making kava freely available to all who wish to access her many benefits to health and happiness. However, a recent news article made me ponder just how important it is to establish firm cultural guidelines governing the use of kava kava, just as have been set down in the South Pacific for countless millennia. Although the story I am about to relate pertains to the state of kava in Australia, I believe it has many lessons for how we view kava and its uses in the West.
A recent Radio Australia program highlighted remarks by Australia’s Minister of Indigenous Affairs, Nigel Scullion, about the use of kava in Australia’s remote northern Arnhem Land. Scullion stated there is currently a problem with illegal diversion of large amounts of kava into Arnhem Land—as much as 35 tons of powdered kava root—specifically targeted to the market of some 3000 regular kava users in the region. The amounts of kava being smuggled (his words) into Australia far exceed the legal limit of two kilos of dried kava root that visitors are allowed to bring through customs in their luggage. This small amount, suitable for personal use, is allowed under Australia’s laws so that Pacific Islanders entering the country can still pursue their traditions involving kava while in Australia.
However, Scullion also attributed the kava smuggling to South Pacific visitors (specifically Tongans), whom he believes are the main group responsible for diverting commercial amounts of kava into Arnhem Land for illicit sale. Scullion promised a “crackdown” by Australian authorities on large-scale diversions of kava intended for sale in Arnhem Land. There was also a recent motion to ban kava in Arnhem Land in response to this issue.
Watching the story unfold from the United States, all this uproar around kava in Australia struck me as faintly absurd. Why would Australia protest the increasing availability of a beneficial herb like kava into Arnhem Land when the Australian government already approved kava’s sale there in the early 1980s? However, appended to the news story was an interview with Alan Clough, a researcher with the Australian Institute of Tropical Medicine in Queensland, who made the valuable point that indigenous people in Arnhem Land are using kava much differently than populations in the South Pacific. While Tonga, Vanuatu and other South Pacific countries have centuries of cultural regulations and protocols governing the way kava can be used, these regulations don’t exist in Arnhem Land; Clough said there is more potential for people to overuse kava out of boredom, or as a way to escape from the reality of low employment opportunities and lack of other activities in Arnhem Land.
He noted that since the indigenous people of Arnhem Land have only been exposed to kava for about thirty years, there is greater potential for its abuse because it lacks a cultural context. Relatedly, indigenous peoples exposed to alcohol after European contact often experienced higher rates of alcoholism and damage to their social structures (in addition to the more direct damage European colonists did to the indigenous cultures they encountered). Of course, when used in the doses common to the South Pacific or in Western medicine, kava does not carry the health risks of alcohol. Yet Clough stated that kava does begin to have health effects when taken frequently at heavy doses, which is often how it’s used by regular kava users in Arnhem Land. Clough suggested that kava begins to manifest negative health effects at doses of about 350 grams of dried root power per week. These effects include reddened eyes; elevated blood platelet count; kava dermatopathy (a reversible kava-induced skin rash); shortness of breath; and changes in the levels of the liver enzyme gamma-glutamyl-transferase (GGT), although these changes did not indicate liver inflammation in the people he examined (Clough 2003). Clough also mentioned the possibility of malnutrition due to kava becoming the staple item of heavy users’ diet.
Equally troubling, other studies discovered that Arnhem Land residents often used kava in combination with alcohol. Experiments with mice have shown that administering kava and alcohol in combination may potentiate greater hypnotic and toxic effects than either substance taken alone (D’Abbs 1997). Additionally, while kava by itself has been proven experimentally not to impair cognitive function, kava and alcohol combined do have a deleterious effect on both subjective and measured cognitive performance in humans (D’Abbs 1997, 9). Ironically, kava was originally introduced to Arnhem Land in the 1980s as a alternative to alcohol, whose high usage rates were causing negative health and social outcomes in the community. Both frequent drinking and petrol sniffing were two risky behaviors engaged in by people in these communities who faced a real or perceived lack of options.
Arnhem Land’s rocky history suggests to me that simply taking away kava is not a solution to the region’s problems. In fact, this could lead to more problems as residents turn to much worse alternatives such as alcohol. Dr. Clough’s comments on the situation got me thinking—what if, instead of just banning kava, Australia turned the focus toward educating people about the best practices for using kava? What if they could create a stable cultural context around kava, just as there has been for dozens of generations in the South Pacific? My guru instincts suggest that creating such a context of safe and positive uses for kava could only improve the situation in Arnhem Land!
Another key leg of the effort to improve things in Arnhem Land would be development—putting some effort and dollars into creating infrastructure and opportunities for employment and prosperity that don’t currently exist in the region. Sitting around drinking kava (or anything) all day is likely more a result of apathy, of feeling like they have no future and nothing better to do, than of the availability of kava. One suggestion for economic improvement that got me especially excited was a proposal made by community leaders for the development of a “yolgnu”, or indigenous, kava trade: basically, instead of their only source of kava being controlled from the outside (by legal or illicit channels), Arnhem Land communities would take control of the import, sale and distribution of kava with the approval of the Australian government. A control board assembled of appointees from each kava-using community could regularly convene to negotiate on matters of trade and see that the profits from the wholesaling of kava go back to the communities of Arnhem Land.
Readers, I don’t know about you, but my excitement is palpable at this idea. What a wonderful proposal to put the control of kava back into the hands of Arnhemlanders! I sincerely hope that this proposal gains traction so that the people of Arnhem Land can enjoy all the benefits of kava within a well-defined cultural context that puts their future in their own hands again!
Clough, A.R., C.B. Burns, and N. Mununggurr. 2000. “Kava in Arnhem Land: a review of consumption and its social correlates.” Drug and Alcohol Review 19: 319-28.
Clough A.R., R.S. Bailie, B. Currie. “Liver function test abnormalities in users of aqueous kava extracts”. Journal of Toxicology. 2003. 41(6):821-9.)
D’Abbs, Peter and Chris Burn. September 1997. “Draft report on inquiry into the issue of kava regulation”. Sessional Committee on the Use and Abuse of Alcohol by the Community. http://www.nt.gov.au/lant/parliamentary-business/committees/kava.pdf.
Hill, Bruce. “Pacific Islanders accused of Australian black market kava trade”. Radio Australia. Last modified November 25th, 2014. http://www.radioaustralia.net.au/international/radio/program/pacific-beat/pacific-islanders-accused-of-australian-black-market-kava-trade/1393031.