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The push by Vanuatu to legalize kava root worlwide

For Pacificans, the idea that kava could be considered a drug or a toxic plant is strange, but it is still the case in many parts of the world.

The kava root is chewed/grinded or pounded, then mixed in clear fresh water for consumption ©Where to buy Kava / Kava.com

Kava is cultivated all over our ocean to produce a traditional bitter drink from its roots. When prepared correctly, drinking kava creates a mellowing effect and a wellness feeling without affecting cognitive functions. It has an important cultural and ceremonial role, and different parts of the plant are used in traditional medicine to help with sleep problems, asthma, some skin and urea problems and some nervous system conditions.

The plant is named kava internationally, from the words kava or kava-kava in central Polynesian islands (Tonga to the Marquesan islands). It is known as ʻawa in Hawaiʻi, ʻava in Samoa, yaqona in Fiji, malok or malogu in parts of Vanuatu…

The Kava Ban of 2002

The plant and derived products are lightly regulated in the Pacific, and existing laws mainly want to insure quality and proper preparation. But it is not the same everywhere: selling the root in the UK is a criminal offense (but it is legal to possess for personal use) and it is completely banned from Poland. It was banned from the whole of the EU and the USA from 2002 to 2012-14 because of a scare it might be damaging to the liver. Some studies on novelty kava derived products linked he plant to several cases of liver failure, but the study has several big problems (mainly that the patients who had a problem were drug and alcohol addicts).

It took 10 years for the main producing countries, Vanuatu, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, to successfully argue that the ban was imposed on insufficient evidence and that 1500 years of traditional use never showed any of these supposed averse effects. With the help of new clinical trials, mainly financed by Vanuatu, the ban was lifted in 2012 in North America and in 2014 in Europe. But kava is still tightly controlled in most occidental countries.

Add kava to the Codex for international commerce

The new fight of Vanuatu is now to incorporate kava in the Codex Alimentarius, a collection of internationally recognized standards, codes of practice, guidelines and other recommendations relating to foods. The Codex was established by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), and has a huge weight in trade standards adopted around the world.

Vanuatu got support from Fiji, Australia, New Zealand, PNG, the USA and Canada and got re-appointed to a second term as Coordinator of the Commission for North America and the South West Pacific for the Codex revision. Its main goal is to get kava integrated into the Codex in the coming years. Vanuatu has also been commended by the commission “for its contributions to its earlier studies of the kava species (piper methysticum).”

As the entertainment and medicinal effects of the plants are becoming more universally recognize, west-Pacific exporting countries and bound to benefit from ease of trade of such a green commodity. And if someone has to produce the world’s kava, it might as well be the countries that have cultivated and consumed it for almost two millennia…

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