Kava in the Northern Territory
Fig 1 - 145 kilogram seizure showing 30 gram and 1 kilogram deal bags.
The sale and, in majority of circumstances, possession of kava in the Northern Territory is illegal. The Northern Territory is in a unique situation as the North East Arnhem Land area is the only location in Australia that has the level of abuse of this substance or the criminal activity that supports the distribution, sale and misuse of kava.
This misuse leads to significant social, health and financial impacts on remote Indigenous communities and their residents.
The profit margins are significant with indications a considerable amount of the profits taken from remote Indigenous communities are diverted to communities in Sydney and the Pacific Islands.
As an example of the profit margins, a kilogram of kava can be purchased for approximately $15 in the Pacific Islands and more usually $60-$100 a kilogram in Sydney or $80-$100 a kilogram in Melbourne. Currently a 30 gram bag of kava sells for $50 1 or more in most North East Arnhem communities.
Kava is the ground rhizome of the plant Piper methysticum, a member of the black pepper family. Cultivated kava is a dense, leafy green plant that is generally harvested when it is approximately six to eight feet in height. The plants take approximately five to seven years to mature, with a minimum of four years maturity required to produce high quality kava.
The constituents of kava are a group of active chemicals known as kava lactones, which are naturally present in the root of the plant. To date, 19 kava lactones have been identified in the kava root, six of which have been described as the major active constituents. 2
The kava lactones produce a number of effects when ingested including: analgesic, sedative, soporific, local anaesthetic, and muscle relaxant.
Kava is usually used for traditional ceremonies and for social occasions in many of the Pacific Islands. The powdered kava is infused in water in a large bowl and people form a kava drinking circle around the bowl. The person responsible for mixing the brew then distributes the kava drink among group members using the one drinking cup. This use is usually well controlled although the Pacific Islands also experience kava abuse issues amongst some in their populations.
Kava is also sold in some countries as a herbal preparation or medicine in tablet or capsules for stress relief and other ailments. This use has been linked in some studies to deaths as a result of liver failure. 3
The strength of Kava varies greatly, it depends on the plant from which it is prepared and how it is prepared.
In 2012 NT Police seized 2,077 kilograms of kava in 81 seizures. Since January 2009 until 27 February 2013 nearly 8.5 tonnes of kava has been seized and 216 arrests made.
1 Recent Intelligence indicates price has risen from $30 to $50 or more per 30 gram bag.
2 Information supplied by NT Department of Health in briefing paper.
3 Gow et al There are mixed reports about this and liver complications may not necessarily be entirely attributable to Kava intake.