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Kava Abuse in Australian Aboriginal Communities
May 1, 2007 12:24 PM   Subscribe

"Troy is only 8, but he knows the words to Yanguna, an Arnhem Land song celebrating kava. He sings in tune with Saltwater Band's anthem to the drug as the car bumps along the dirt track. Kava came to Arnhem Land 20 years ago as a ray of hope. Aboriginal community leaders believed the calming drink from the Pacific could be a peaceful alternative to alcohol, then raging through Aboriginal communities like a cyclone. But kava became just another abused substance.
posted by jason's_planet (43 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
I periodically use kava and really enjoy it; it took a lot of research to get me past the backlash over its side-effects. The usual rules apply: the use of pure product in appropriate dosages under the correct circumstances are key.
posted by hermitosis at 12:41 PM on May 1, 2007


I'm from Arnhem land too.
Just tell me if you want me to teach you any traditional songs.
posted by jouke at 12:46 PM on May 1, 2007


I found kava rather boring. Not exactly an addictive drug...
posted by iamck at 12:46 PM on May 1, 2007


Just had some and now my tongue is kinda numb. Peppery flavor which I subdued with some sugar.
posted by alteredcarbon at 12:47 PM on May 1, 2007


hermitosis: is it available in the US?
posted by Azaadistani at 12:54 PM on May 1, 2007


Yes, no problem. I bought a bottle of 100% root extract at my neighborhood family-owned chemist.

Also, Yogi Tea sells a kava blend.
posted by hermitosis at 12:57 PM on May 1, 2007


Thanks ... oh, and what may the correct circumstances be?
posted by Azaadistani at 1:01 PM on May 1, 2007


I periodically use kava and really enjoy it;

Me, too. It's a very mellow feeling. It doesn't get me sick or dehydrated the way alcohol does.

Not exactly an addictive drug...

Yeah, but if you have an addictive pattern in place, one rooted in social marginalization and poverty, you could wind up abusing even the most benign of drugs.
posted by jason's_planet at 1:03 PM on May 1, 2007


like any psychoactive substance, the 'correct circumstances' are good environment and mood.
posted by sunshinesky at 1:05 PM on May 1, 2007


Also, re: correct circumstances, avoid mixing with alcohol or other situations which may contribute to liver toxicity, and avoid heavy use.
posted by hermitosis at 1:12 PM on May 1, 2007


Had plenty of the stuff in Fiji and other than making my mouth numb and tasting like mop water, I found it pretty meh. I would like to know how it got to the states though. I tried to bring back a bag and it got snagged so fast in customs and I got to face a very serious customs officer with absolutely no sense of humor. Is it the same stuff as in Fiji?
posted by elendil71 at 1:20 PM on May 1, 2007


I'm probably being a prig...but I find kava enthusiasm a wee bit pretentious if you're not part of the culture.

(An opinion not hugely dispelled by a funny travel memoir about the South Pacific with a lot to say on the subject Getting Stoned with Savages by J. Maarten Troost. Just happened to read it - and it is fairly amusing, but not "laugh-out-loud" as the blurb insists!)
posted by Jody Tresidder at 1:20 PM on May 1, 2007


I first learned about kava in the book Getting Stoned with Savages. A good read, BTW.
posted by yoga at 1:22 PM on May 1, 2007


Seriously, Jody? Do you find Ouzo enthusiasm to be pretentious if you're not Greek?
posted by Greg Nog at 1:22 PM on May 1, 2007


jinx jody. ;)
posted by yoga at 1:24 PM on May 1, 2007


Up to now, references to kava with a lower-case k have confused me somewhat. As a USian growing up in the 60s and 70s, I was familiar with Kava® coffee, which which kava is apparently not to be confused.
posted by pax digita at 1:25 PM on May 1, 2007


I drank a ton of this stuff while spending a couple weeks living in a Fijean village, and I have to agree with elendil's "meh" verdict (although I had no problems bringing a bunch back as gifts for friends).

How does one become addicted to drinking muddy water?
posted by JaredSeth at 1:25 PM on May 1, 2007


Interesting story. I learned about traditional kava use from a Fijian friend of mine at the annual Fijian Independence Day festival in Atlanta a few years ago. Previous to that, I'd routinely purchased kava root tea -- the Yogi blend mentioned before -- at the local Whole Foods for nights where I just wanted to have a nice quiet tea before bed and fall asleep fast.

There's certainly an effect, but I can't imagine abusing it. Not even after having ingested quite a bit at the aforementioned festival.
posted by vanadium at 1:35 PM on May 1, 2007


In America, kava is much more popular as an herbal supplement in pill form, or in small doses in tea. The kava brews that the natives make are a much bigger deal (if you can even get past the taste, and like having feeling in your tongue...) Ultimately, in the doses that I've seen people take in the states, the risks mentioned in this article should not be troubling as far as I can see from my own research. I don't use kava much anymore, but I did have positive results with the pill supplements.
posted by aletheia at 1:37 PM on May 1, 2007


"Seriously, Jody? Do you find Ouzo enthusiasm to be pretentious if you're not Greek?"
posted by Greg Nog

I'm not quite as awful as I sound, Greg!
And, "no, not at all" to your question - and retsina is fine, too!

I suppose it's because travellers use kava to enhance their appreciation of "paradise" - while the locals seem to use it to (very, very cheaply) soften the limitations of where they were born - and are stuck. That makes me a bit snotty.

So when you're scouring the internet for the "real stuff", it's not to drink kava for the reasons it's gulped down if you're a local.

(Yes, I am a bit of a prig on this one, basically!)
posted by Jody Tresidder at 1:53 PM on May 1, 2007


jinx jody. ;) posted by yoga

Cheers to you too:)
posted by Jody Tresidder at 1:56 PM on May 1, 2007


Jody, people drink alcohol for different reasons, too. It's not pretentious to have a drink for enjoyment just because someone else drinks to forget he's miserable, is it?
posted by katillathehun at 2:57 PM on May 1, 2007


Jeez, this was known a decade ago, and yet the FDA has looked the other way while kava is marketed as a safe "nutritional supplement" in the US. Sad tale.
posted by spitbull at 3:06 PM on May 1, 2007


A number of years ago I did some research and then ordered over the net some imported super high-quality kava. Five pounds of it, believe it or not.

But I could never find a way to manage to consume it. It tastes really, really bad.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:20 PM on May 1, 2007


I tried kava very recently after doing a lot of research. The effects are very slight but when you're really keyed up from chronic anxiety and depression, the feeling of calmness and relaxation that it gives is very welcome. This often carries over to the next day without impairing my reaction time and motor functions - something that alcohol always does for me.

My two cents, but is there's any thought given as to why people feel the need to medicate themselves to "feel good" to the point where they do damage? Kava may be abused in Arnham Land, but perhaps they should look at the grinding poverty, unemployment, and general shit treatment by the rest of the country as well as the well-known EXISTING culture of abuse (like petrol-sniffing) before employing the traditional knee-jerk reaction of banning it?

I don't hold out much hope.
posted by ninazer0 at 3:25 PM on May 1, 2007


"Jody, people drink alcohol for different reasons, too. It's not pretentious to have a drink for enjoyment just because someone else drinks to forget he's miserable, is it?
posted by katillathehun

I think that would defeat my little snit - except that no one genuinely seems to remotely enjoy the bloody taste, ever!

I'm not getting prissy about drinking to get drunk either!

But proclaiming a kava habit seems more akin to saying you sip meths (when you have a "choice" not to) and expecting polite folk to find you a little bit fascinating.

(I should probably just chill out with a cold one myself...)
posted by Jody Tresidder at 3:35 PM on May 1, 2007


Kava (or 'awa, as Hawaiians referred to it) has been enjoying a resurgence here in Hawaii, and I don't mean it's been picked up by our alcoholics and junkies. For many years it's been sold in grocery stores. Not in the pharmacy, but right next to the teas and coffees. We even had a fairly successful kava "bar," but it closed down last year - interesting read for anyone interested in the cultural and social aspects of its use, in a modern context. And there's a Kava Festival in the works, which is hoping to promote growth and use of 'awa, even suggesting its use as a diplomatic lubricant, or something. I guess since it tends to mellow people out, they're thinking it could help in conflict resolution. Not sure that this will end well. But it would be fun to watch politicians sucking some down from a wooden bowl before proceedings begin on C-SPAN.

Back in the day, 'awa wasn't sold pre-packaged but we could always find someone who grew the root. Then it was simply a matter of mashing it up (with a poi pounder or similar blunt instrument) and straining it through a panty hose leg. Then we'd sit around, talk story, and occasionally slap our own faces to make sure they were still attached. And yes, it tastes like a bowl full of mud that has been having filthy sex with a bucket of dishwater.

It's a shame that the aboriginal community has gone the way of addiction and abuse, with 'awa or any substance. But as others have said, this isn't because of the 'awa.
posted by krippledkonscious at 4:22 PM on May 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


ninazer0 writes "perhaps they should look at the grinding poverty, unemployment, and general shit treatment by the rest of the country as well as the well-known EXISTING culture of abuse (like petrol-sniffing) before employing the traditional knee-jerk reaction of banning it?"

My impression of the situation is that they did look at the grinding poverty, unemployment, and general shit treatment, and existing culture of abuse, and then banned it. I don't see anywhere saying they banned it instead of trying to solve the poverty, unemployment, general shit treatment, or existing culture of abuse.

Jody Tresidder writes "But proclaiming a kava habit seems more akin to saying you sip meths (when you have a 'choice' not to) and expecting polite folk to find you a little bit fascinating."

I dunno what it's like out there in the real world (never heard of kava before), but in this thread at least, it doesn't seem like anyone who is saying they use kava is expecting any sort of laurels or fawning, they're just giving their first-hand experience. Like when there's a MeFi article about Kansas and people who live in Kansas or have visited Kansas pipe in with their own observations and experiences.
posted by Bugbread at 4:35 PM on May 1, 2007


...but in this thread at least, it doesn't seem like anyone who is saying they use kava is expecting any sort of laurels or fawning...posted by bugbread

...and I was just saying I found it a wee bit pretentious - and that I was aware I was serving up that opinion with a side dish of prig!
posted by Jody Tresidder at 4:46 PM on May 1, 2007


I recall seeing public health posters in Arnhem Land propagandising "not our culture, not our drug!" about the kava problem.

Fijian legend has it that some ancestral women carried the kava root to the island hidden in their vaginas, hence the smell & taste.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:22 PM on May 1, 2007


Bugbread: I wasn't trying to imply that nothing is being done. It is (non-sniffable petrol, alcohol-free zones, counselling etc) and it occaisionally works. The problem that I have with the article is that the community knew that there were already rampaging substance abuse problems and they brought in a brand new substance. Which, surprise, is now being abused. So the Powers That Be ban it and, surprise, there's a thriving black market. So the answer, obviously, is to licence it and make money out of it. Which, granted, is going back into the community.

It's an interesting lesson all told.

I find the allegation of "pretentiousness" rather amusing, actually. I'm a fat, stressed woman with a great education and below-average wage who doesn't want to hand money over to Big Pharma and their dodgy track records. I didn't realise this made me pretentious. With a little work, I might actually make it to "hip"! :)
posted by ninazer0 at 7:46 PM on May 1, 2007



To those people who say that they drank Kava Kava and that it wasn't a big deal:

I don't think that Kava's effect on Fijians or Aborigines or anything like that has its root in an addictive culture of some kind. I think that the drink chemically has a totally different and much stronger effect on those people. I'm talking about some kind of genetic difference in those people that allows that to happen.

That drink/substance doesn't do very much to folks of European lineage. To people like Fijians, though, the substance has a very strong effect. That's why they stay up ALL NIGHT drinking the stuff. That's why some people drink it so much that they eventually get scaly skin.

I'm surprised no one has mentioned the genetic differences so far. Just think of your Asian friend who has just one shot of alcohol and gets all red and trashed. Apparently something like that happens with Kava.
posted by redteam at 9:14 PM on May 1, 2007


bugbread: My impression of the situation is that they did look at the grinding poverty, unemployment, and general shit treatment, and existing culture of abuse, and then banned it

Given those factors, banning it is simply going to displace the activity of abuse for some and sustain it via the black market for others. Now, if the substitute among the former leads to less overall toxicity, and that balances out the collateral effects due to the black market among the latter, then the overall change will be positive. But I suspect the policy makers, going by nature of drug-policy making worldwide, weren't thinking along those lines. More likely, about sending a formal message via the law, and a naive optimism that making it illegal would "solve the problem".
posted by daksya at 10:17 PM on May 1, 2007


I've tried it a few times, in a little place called the Kava Hut on Hindley Street in Adelaide. It was nice, like a combination of being drunk and stoned with none of the downsides of either. Tastes like liquid mud, though, which is why they give you pieces of orange to bite on afterwards.

I wonder if the Kava Hut's still there.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 3:19 AM on May 2, 2007


The Kava hut is still there on Hindley Street, A Thousand Baited Hooks, and every year or so some scare campaign comes up in the Adelaide media about how they are selling dangerous drugs to our teenagers etc. etc. etc. But the Kava Hut continues on...
posted by Jimbob at 4:51 AM on May 2, 2007


Thanks, Jimbob! Knowing that makes me happy somehow.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 5:10 AM on May 2, 2007


I don't think that Kava's effect on Fijians or Aborigines or anything like that has its root in an addictive culture of some kind. I think that the drink chemically has a totally different and much stronger effect on those people. I'm talking about some kind of genetic difference in those people that allows that to happen.

That drink/substance doesn't do very much to folks of European lineage.


I won't dismiss your theory out of hand, but I note that I am about as . . . European as the proverbial cliffs of Dover. And the first time I took Kava, it knocked me on my ass. Kava was better than about 90% of the w**d I've smoked. I also note that I've never had the mashed root preparation, which is probably stronger than the pills I took; most North Americans probably consume Kava in weaker, diluted forms.
posted by jason's_planet at 8:04 AM on May 2, 2007


"I'm surprised no one has mentioned the genetic differences so far. Just think of your Asian friend who has just one shot of alcohol and gets all red and trashed. Apparently something like that happens with Kava."posted by redteam

Not surprised you suspected such a link - i.e. to the Asian alcohol intolerance which does appear to have a genetic component in a few, though by no means a majority, of Asians.

But jason's_planet's Euro experience seems much nearer the mark.

I think native kava drinkers seem to be very, very habituated to the effects over a long period (so it's not like, say, the nauseating effect of a first cigarette - which soon diminishes with practice)as well as capable of drinking heroic quantities in one long session for the buzz.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 9:14 AM on May 2, 2007


Jody Tresidder writes "Not surprised you suspected such a link - i.e. to the Asian alcohol intolerance which does appear to have a genetic component in a few, though by no means a majority, of Asians."

Dunno about Asians in general, but the Wikipedia page on aldehyde dehydrogenases indicates that aldehyde dehydrogenase deficiency (which causes alcohol intolerance) affects 50% of Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese, and the Japanese Wikipedia page gives a little more detail: 45% of Japanese have AG type, which makes one alcohol-weak, and 5% have AA type, which is plain ole intolerance.

Sorry, bit of a tangent.
posted by Bugbread at 10:54 AM on May 2, 2007


No - I'm grateful. I had no idea the figures were so firmly high - so thank you, bugbread!
posted by Jody Tresidder at 11:01 AM on May 2, 2007


No worries. It comes up in the media here from time to time (here = Japan), and I was kinda curious what the figures were too. Apparently, that particular genetic quirk originated in Mongolia, so it's probably more common in North and East Asia than South or Southeast, hence I'm not sure how it is for Asia as a whole (the populations of India and Indonesia probably drive the percentages right down).
posted by Bugbread at 11:45 AM on May 2, 2007


Wow, that's really interesting, jason's_planet. You lucky guy, that would have been nice if that had happened to me.

I stayed in a little Fijian village for a little while several years ago and tried the stuff in its natural setting. Pounded root, clapping, coconut shells, all that stuff. It numbed my lips a little but it didn't do much else. I didn't really mind the taste, either. While the villagers would stay up all night drinking the stuff and crushing it loudly with a huge metal pole in a metal outside and then drinking it some more, us backpackers just tried our best to get some sleep. There were two German girls, a couple of Danish guys, a couple of white Americans, two English girls, a Welshman, and myself - the product of two Argentine parents. No one really felt anything. I talked to a lot of other backpackers about Kava. They had all tried it, but no one wanted to have anything to do with it - they said it didn't do anything to them and they couldn't get over the muddy water taste. :(

Regardless, I bought about a kilo of the powder for friends back home in California and plenty of the plain root for myself. I liked nibbling on it. It would give me the same tingly feeling in my mouth but without all of the liquid-drinking.

Oh, and for the record, while snorkeling, don't stuff your face in soft corals to make your girlfriend laugh at your clown fish imitation. While the soft corals won't do anything to your hands, they will totally sting the hell out of your face. It felt like a 1 inch tall man had shot me with a tiny machine-gun.
posted by redteam at 8:01 PM on May 2, 2007


Wow, that's really interesting, jason's_planet.

Thanks! And thank you for sharing your own field experiences.
posted by jason's_planet at 2:03 PM on May 4, 2007


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