In February 2011, police in Canberra raided a major multicultural festival and closed down a stall that was serving kava to reportedly hundreds of visitors.Police were acting on orders from the Chief Minister banning kava from the Australian Capital Territory.
How did it come about that kava – a highly ritualised and essential part of ceremonies for welcoming, respect, farewell and peace-making in many Pacific cultures – could be banned?
Kava has long been used in Pacific cultures to relieve anxiety and stress. Its properties were recognised by German scientists as early as 1860 and kava-based medicines became popular in Europe from 1890 to the late 1990s.
In Australia, two Fijian missionaries introduced kava to certain Aboriginal groups in the Northern Territory in the early 1980s as a substitute for alcohol. At first it was successful and alcohol sales to some communities plummeted, but by the mid-1980s medical reports emerged suggesting liver damage in some individuals.
In 2001, the German government announced it too had received reports of liver damage (and one death) possibly related to the intake of kava extract or tablets. In both Australia and Europe, a media outcry was followed by restrictions on the availability of kava. Germany and France both banned sales of the very popular kava extract and tablets in 2002. Australia declared kava a ‘prescription only’ medicine in 2004 and banned its commercial importation in 2007.
Pacific kava drinkers were puzzled and angered. There is no history of liver damage from kava in Oceania despite centuries of kava-drinking, suggesting that any problems were from the modern tablet extraction or production processes, or its abuse with alcohol.
In fact, the medical basis for banning kava has always been sketchy and controversial. A recent review of the evidence published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review has found no association between kava and cognitive impairment, liver toxicity or permanent liver damage.
Pacific communities have now formed the Australian Kava Movement. The group held an international conference at ANU in August and submitted a report to the federal government in September calling for a review of the restrictions on kava.
Should natural kava be allowed once again to be widely enjoyed in multicultural Australia as a relaxing, natural social drink? Or should Australian governments continue to legislate against kava, acts that many Pacific islanders consider to be discriminatory?
Visit the Australian Kava Movement webpage to find out more at www.australiankavamovement.com.au.
Kirk Huffman, Research Associate
First published in Explore 33(4) pp 21-23
12 December 2011: Hear Kirk being interviewed by Isabelle Genoux, ABC Radio Australia, here.
10 February 2012: Read how authorities are proposing to deal with kava ahead of this year's multicultural festival here.