April 27, 2022

New kava regulations in Australia

Kava preparation

Kava (or ‘kava kava’, ‘waka’, or ‘wati’) is a depressant drug. This means it slows down the messages travelling between the brain and the body.1

Kava comes from a plant called piper methysticum, which is native to the Pacific. It has a long history in the region and is central to many Pacific Islander cultures.1

Communities have traditionally used kava as a drink for ceremonies and cultural practices. These rituals are said to strengthen ties among groups and help people to communicate with spirits.1

We also know that Kava can reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety, enhance mood and improve sleep.2, 3 But it may be more effective for relief from short-term or mild anxiety than for people with severe anxiety.4

When used with alcohol or some other medications, kava can cause serious side effects like liver damage. This includes kava extracts containing alcohol.3, 5

On its own and in moderation, side effects are usually mild and include cramping and nausea.3

Kava in Australia

Many Pacific Islanders who have settled in Australia have continued drinking kava or using kava extracts.5

It was also introduced into some Indigenous communities in the 1980s with the hope of reducing alcohol-related health issues.1

But, the government banned imports in 2007 after high levels of kava use appeared to be causing other health problems in these communities.1, 6

Given kava’s role in Pacific Islander culture, travellers were initially still allowed to enter Australia carrying up to two kilos per passenger.6

That was upped from two to four kilos per passenger in 2019 when the Australian Government stepped up its commitment to the Pacific by launching a kava pilot program.7

Now what’s changing?

The second phase of the pilot kicked off in December 2021, allowing companies to apply to import kava products into Australia.7, 8

Kava tablets are now being sold and drinking kava will soon be available at supermarkets and other retailers.8, 9

Some Pacific Islander community members and leaders in Australia have voiced their support for the pilot program, believing that access to kava is about connection to culture.10

Kava is also one of the most valuable crops in the Pacific, so it’s an economic opportunity for many Pacific-based companies and growers.10

To import kava, companies need to prove their products meet Australia’s national food standards.10

State and territory governments will still get the final say on kava however, including whether it can be bought or sold in their states and territories.10

For now, it is still illegal to import or sell kava in the Northern Territory.9

  1. Urquhart B, Thomson N, editors. Review of the misuse of kava among Indigenous Australians2009.
  2. Kuchta K, Hladikova M, Thomsen M, Nahrstedt A, Schmidt M. Kava (Piper methysticum) Extract for the Treatment of Nervous Anxiety, Tension and Restlessness. Drug Res (Stuttg). 2021;71(02):83-93.
  3. Sarris J, Adams J, Wardle JL. Time for a reassessment of the use of Kava in anxiety? Complementary Therapies in Medicine. 2009;17(3):121-2.
  4. Sarris J, Byrne GJ, Bousman CA, Cribb L, Savage KM, Holmes O, et al. Kava for generalised anxiety disorder: A 16-week double-blind, randomised, placebo-controlled study. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry. 2019;54(3):288-97.
  5. Lee K, Freeburn N, Ella S, Miller W, Perry J, Conigrave K. Handbook for Aboriginal Alcohol and Drug Work. 2012 [3/3/2022].
  6. Federal government bans kava imports: The Sydney Morning Herald; 2007 [3/3/2022].
  7. Media release: stepping up trade and cultural ties in the Pacific: Prime Minister of Australia; 2019 [3/3/2022].
  8. Redrup Y, Macdonald A. Chemist Warehouse nabs Fiji Kava stake as part of distribution deal 2021 [3/3/2022].
  9. Drinking kava to be sold in Coles stores except in the Northern Territory: NT Independent; 2022 [3/3/2022].
  10. Would you go to a kava bar? Producers of the psychoactive drink want a mainstream market: ABC News; 2022 [3/3/2022].

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