Overview of major drugs

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What is kava?

Kava comes from the root of the pepper plant Piper methysticum. It is used in traditional ceremonies and for social occasions in many of the Pacific Islands. Kava is valued for its medicinal properties and is sold as a herbal preparation or medicine in many countries.

In the NT, Aboriginal people make a kava drink by mixing the dry, powdered root with water. Kava resin, suspended in water, contains active chemicals known as kava lactones. The strength of kava varies greatly and depends on the plant from which it is prepared and how it is prepared.

When kava is drunk, the active chemicals are absorbed through the stomach into the bloodstream and pass quickly to the brain. Kava acts as sedative and soporific (sleep inducing). It also induces generalised muscle relaxation (Alexander et al 1987:6). Depending on the strength of the kava mixture, it can have a psychoactive effect. While kava does not contain alcohol, people talk about getting 'drunk' on kava. A person is thought to be drunk on kava if he or she cannot walk or talk properly, is very friendly, dizzy, sleepy or is acting 'funny' (Watson et al 1988:66).

Effects of kava use

There is more to learn about the short and long-term health effects of drinking kava and more research is being done.

Short-term effects of drinking kava

In small to moderate amounts, kava causes:

In larger amounts, kava causes:

Kava drinkers are thus sometimes recognisable by their bloodshot eyes and ulcerous skin lesions called Kani Kani (Lebot et al 1992:60). A second side effect of heavy kava consumption is an occasional state of apathy that reportedly affects some drinkers preventing them from eating adequately (Lebot et al 1992:60). Half a coconut shell (approximately 100-150ml) of certain varieties of kava is strong enough to put a drinker into a deep, dreamless sleep within 30 minutes. The next day the drinker awakens having fully recovered normal physical and mental capabilities (Lebot et al 1992:59).

Long-term health effects of kava misuse

The diagram on the following page shows the long-term health effects of kava misuse.

body_kava.gif (123518 bytes)

Social effects

Communities have been particularly concerned about the social effects of drinking kava. Some people have spent large amounts of time drinking kava and neglecting family and community duties. Some people have spent large amounts of money to buy kava, leaving no money for food and other essential items. Communities are concerned that the health and nutritional status of infants and children are affected.

Kava and sudden death

There have been a number of sudden deaths of young, adult men during heavy exercise after they had drunk large amounts of kava. These young men had diseased hearts. We know that smoking, alcohol, high blood pressure, diabetes, lack of exercise, excessive weight and poor nutrition all contribute to cardiovascular disease. It is also known that unaccustomed exercise puts a strain on a diseased heart, increasing the risk of sudden death. Dehydration from heavy sweating and not drinking water can also be dangerous.

Some young Aboriginal people have cardiovascular disease without knowing it. Some of these young people drink alcohol heavily and smoke and so are already at risk of further damaging their hearts. Drinking kava may add to this risk.

Kava, pregnancy and breastfeeding

It is not known what effect drinking kava has on the developing baby. Until there is more information, it is recommended that pregnant or breastfeeding women do not drink kava.


There have not been any documented reports of withdrawal symptoms when heavy kava drinkers stop drinking kava. However, people who stop using should be monitored initially to see if any health problems emerge and need attention.

Overview of kava use in the NT

History of use

Kava was first introduced into Eastern Arnhem Land in 1981 after some community members visited Fiji. They thought it might be beneficial for Aboriginal people and stop them from drinking alcohol. It did not take long before kava use spread. By 1986, people in eight Top End communities were drinking kava when it was available. Most communities in the NT have chosen not to allow kava drinking and therefore its use is confined to Arnhem Land.

How many people drink kava?

From the late 1980s there was an increase in the number of people drinking kava:

Research has also found that the amount of kava being drunk increased between the 1980s and 1992 (d'Abbs 1993:24).

Patterns of drinking

Research conducted in 1986 found that unlike alcohol, kava was said to be good for 'keeping relationships strong'. In some communities, it was known as a 'family drink'. Some people have said that kava helped people talk about issues. People could drink kava socially without the disruptive effects associated with alcohol misuse. Some communities have supported kava use because people felt that if kava was not available, there would be more trouble with alcohol (see Alexander et al 1987 and Watson et al 1988:66-68).

People tend to drink kava in groups. Powdered kava is mixed with water in a large bowl. Both men and women sit around the bowl in a kava drinking circle. The 'captain' passes a cup of kava to each person in turn. Kava drinking can take place any time day or night and some people moved from one kava circle to another.

kava3.gif (17367 bytes)

Kava and the Law in the NT

In March 1994, the Commonwealth Government introduced a law prohibiting the importation of kava into Australia for the purpose of selling it. This law changed in October 1997 so that people who wanted to bring kava into Australia were required to apply for an import permit from the Commonwealth Government. They also had to sign the National Code of Kava Management and abide by any laws in the Northern Territory.

In 1997, the NT Government conducted a Parliamentary Inquiry into Kava Management in the NT. Following this Inquiry the Government implemented an interim policy that no permits would be issued for selling kava in the NT. As of 21 May 1998, under the Kava Management Act 1998, the selling of kava without a licence has been illegal. This Act allows for communities to apply to the Liquor Commission to become licensed to sell and use kava. There must be demonstrated support for the community for the selling of kava in the community.

point.gif (93 bytes) For more information, contact the Liquor Commission

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