South Pacific producers of kava were delighted this week at the publication of a World Health Organisation report declaring kava to be a safe product although one that should be available on prescriptions and not over the counter in an attempt to better monitor its use.

(The Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration describes kava — also known as kava kava or Piper methysticum — as a member of the pepper family that has traditionally been cultivated by Pacific Islanders for use as a social and ceremonial drink — either ground or chewed up and mixed with water or coconut milk.)

Fiji Kava Council chairman Ratu Josateki Nawalowalo said that as far as the kava industry in Fiji and the Pacific was concerned, this was a major breakthrough.

Here in Australia there was less welcome news. The Australian Government decided to ban the import of kava, apart from small quantities for personal use, as part of its campaign to stamp out child abuse in Aboriginal communities.

According to a statement by Health Minister Tony Abbott and Customs Minister David Johnston announcing the ban, “kava abuse has become an increasingly serious problem in indigenous communities over recent years with the health effects becoming more severe in communities where kava use is not traditional and where excessive consumption occurs.”

Kava was originally introduced to the NT back in the 1980s in an effort to limit alcohol abuse – a kind of methadone for alcoholics – but became used as supplement rather than a substitute, so wanting to ban it in the Territory is understandable.

What is not certain is whether Messrs Abbott and Johnston have considered the consequences of their actions in other parts of Australia where the use of kava instead of alcohol is prevalent among islander communities. There are many people in urban Australia who would feel happier meeting a kava happy islander in the street rather than an intoxicated one.

Peter Fray

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