What is the Legal Status of Kava?

Nancy B. Alston

As a Kava grower, one of the questions I get asked most often is “What’s the legal status of Kava?” Fortunately, the answer is far simpler now than it was in the very-recent past:

In the early 2000’s, demand for Kava rose dramatically as it began to make its way into the mainstream. For many years, it was also being prescribed in parts of Europe to treat anxiety as well; something that the pharmaceutical companies were surely taking notice of. Shortly thereafter, reports of liver damage by a handful of people in Europe began to emerge. Unfortunately, doctors were quick to blame Kava, and soon, entire countries were banning this historically safe and effective herbal supplement. Three of those countries included the United States, Canada, and Germany. Others quickly followed suit and the legal status of kava was suddenly in serious jeopardy.

But, the health industry fought back with a vengeance. Leading that fight was the International Kava Executive Council (bet you didn’t even know they existed). Even though they were outgunned by governments, pharmaceutical companies and the media, the herbal industry was able to provide more than enough evidence that the ban was unquestionably unjustified. Furthermore, the IKEC showed that the conclusions that were reached should never have been reached in the first place, as it became clear that Kava was nothing more than a convenient scapegoat for the reported liver damage. As the evidence was being submitted, ongoing research was also being conducted by a number of independent laboratories and universities behind the scenes, partly because a worldwide ban on kava kava could be devastating for several economies throughout Oceania.

Fortunately, within a small span of time, several key pieces of evidence emerged. Perhaps the most notable one came from from the University of Hawaii, as reported by the Honolulu Advertiser in early 2003. It turns out that there’s a poison in the leaves and peelings (bark) of Kava called pipermethystine. And, not surprisingly, this poison could potentially lead to liver damage.

So, what’s the connection?

It turns out that once the demand for Kava skyrocketed, there wasn’t enough Kava root to fill the demand. Suppliers then knowingly or unknowingly bought the leaves and peelings of Kava plants (the parts that are always thrown away as waste material) from unscrupulous growers. Up until that event, the only parts of the Kava plant that were traditionally used throughout it’s 3,000 year history were the roots; never the peelings or the leaves. On a related note: further research revealed that the handful of people who suffered liver damage also consumed alcohol on a regular basis, restoring Kava’s place in the herbal medicine chest as a safe, effective, and pleasant herbal supplement.

Or so it seemed. Unfortunately, the damage had already been done. Countries started to lift their bans on Kava in 2003-onward, but kava was now synonymous with “but it causes liver damage.” Nothing could be further from the truth, but the media had accomplished its task, and restoring Kava’s reputation has been an uphill battle ever since.

So, where do we stand with the “kava legal status” question? Happily for many, the United States lifted its ban completely, Canada lifted its ban on Kava if it’s imported by individuals for personal consumption, and even Germany, where much of the original controversy arose, lifted its ban on Kava in 2007. Except for a handful of countries such as Norway, Australia, and Sweden, Kava is indeed legal throughout the world once again! The Canadian Health Ministry even gave permission to export Kava to Canada, provided it was only to private individuals.

Now that’s an exciting victory for Kava!

Kava Kava can now once again be enjoyed legally by almost anyone in the world, and consumers can take comfort in the fact that in over 3,000 years of use and many billions of kava drinks consumed, there hasn’t been a single reported incident of kava liver damage from any products made solely from the roots of the plant. Always check your local laws to be certain of the legal status of Kava, but as of this writing, feel free to enjoy the many benefits of this ancient plant.

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