Kava is the most popular drug you've never heard of

Kava is the most popular drug you've never heard of

VicesFebruary 17, 2017 By Reilly Capps

Despite concerns about its safety, and its ban in parts of the world, a plant is winding its roots around American culture.

It's called kava, it's a root from the South Pacific, and it's one of those drugs you've never heard of in your life — but which other people organize their lives around. It's mildly euphoric, relaxes your muscles, calming and painkilling. In other words: it gets you a little bit fucked up.

Kava bar owner Chris Vickers drinks it every day. Kavasutra manager Jenna Green moved cities for it. And herbal shop owner Gian Pieroni switched industries, he loves it so much.

In Pidgin Coop, Vicker's just-opened kava bar on South Broadway in Denver, one of three bars in Colorado dedicated just to kava, the atmosphere is as pleasant and welcoming as an afternoon tea at nana's house, if nana had gauges and face tats, and lived in a house with atomic bomb murals on the walls. Vickers beams as he ladles the gritty brown liquid out of a white tub into glasses. He, co-owner Josh McDeavitt, and their friend Maggie Boyle cheers big and gulp and chug the swill. They gasp and grimace. It tastes, in their words, "gross" and "like dirt." They wipe their grimaces with napkins and smile even bigger.

A half hour later, everyone seems calmer, chatting happily. They call the feeling of being drunk on kava being "rooted."

They're all part of the growing kava community, from punks to lawyers to MMA fighters to pro athletes. It's a community which Douglas La Rose, of the popular blog Kavasseur, says has "quadrupled over the past five years." Poke around, and you can see it. Kava lounges dedicated to kava's semi-haze in the semi-Fowler's position are opening up across the country. Kava.guru lists 58 kava bars in the U.S. Herbal shops, such as Artisan's Apothecary in Denver, sometimes sell out of kava. And regular bars have taken to serving kava right alongside their juice. Pidgin Coop opened because Denver's other kava bar, Kavasutra, was often full to overflowing.

And all for a drug that is illegal in parts of Europe. In the UK, it's banned, and customs will seize kava shipments. In Poland, you might actually go to prison for it.

Why? Does it make go crazy? Do armed kava cartels roam the streets of Vanuatu? No. There were reports in the early part of this century that kava destroys your liver. An uproar followed. Germany was the first country to ban kava, in 2001, although they later rescinded the ban. Switzerland and others followed. Some have never officially changed kava back to being legal. The DEA almost banned the drug, but in the end decided not to.

Edzard Ernst, MD, emeritus professor at the University of Exeter and author of several books casting a critical eye on many alternative medicines, emails that "it never became big again (in Europe) after the ban."

Kava is huge in Polynesian cultures. You can hardly have a tribal meeting without everyone drinking a coconut shell full of it. When the missionaries showed up they tried to stamp out the drink, with some success. But it's still a big part of those cultures, as travelers to Fiji or Kiribati find.

Enthusiasts like Vickers will tell you that the "liver problems" accusation has been debunked, that the problem wasn't the plant itself but a few bad batches made by people who used branches and leaves instead of the roots. Ernst agrees that the liver problems were probably caused by bunk brews and "poor quality sources." "But I am not sure that the last word on this issue has been spoken," he emails.

(Ernst, by the way, is pretty gangster. Reuters reports that Ernst accused Britain's Prince Charles of being a "snake-oil salesman" who promotes alternative therapies "with no scientific basis." Ernst said the brawl with the Prince "cost him his job" at his university.) 

Shade like that doesn't matter much to kava lovers like Vickers, Green and Pieroni; they're gonna keep swilling.

In fact, talking to kava enthusiasts is like talking to any enthusiast about any niche luxury whether Porsche owners, Pitbull defenders or anal sex evangelists. I can't write fast enough to keep up with all of their big claims about kava. Talking to Vickers, I have to turn on my tape recorder to record him saying kava is "anti-depressant, anti-anxiety, natural muscle relaxant, it's good for post-workout, anti-bacterial, anti-microbial, anti-fungal, every anti-oxidant except for zinc, and less than a calorie per serving — very very very very few calories. Also, when you take it at night, it's not gonna knock you out, but when you're ready to sleep it promotes relaxation, you fall asleep faster. Once you fall asleep it puts you into REM sleep faster, so once you go to sleep you can get a fuller night's sleep faster and you wake up refreshed in the morning."

Vickers is an honest evangelist. Dude clearly loves kava. Says it replaced all his prescription meds. But, again, not everyone is buying big claims. "Anyone who claims that kava is a cure for anything is in my view a quack," emails Ernst. "There is only one indication for kava: anxiety. And even for this condition it is by no means a cure but a symptomatic treatment. Our review of the evidence still holds and can be found here." (To be clear: Vickers never said kava "cures" anything, and Ernst's paper says kava is safe and effective for anxiety.)

La Rose, the blogger at Kavasseur, says consumers should ask for "noble" kava, which is less likely to "cause undesirable side effects such as nausea and next-day grogginess" than other kinds.

Is kava poised to blow up? Could kava bars become as trendy and popular in hip cities as juice bars, barre studios and marijuana shops? Maggie Boyle, the bright and cool kava fan, says it's got more of an effect on her than marijuana, and she likes it better, too.

That's one last point that several kava enthusiasts made: the legalization of marijuana has probably made people pay attention to other plants that get you a little bit fucked up, and might have some health benefits.

It's that "rooted" feeling that made Jenna Green move from Florida to run Denver's Kavasutra. It's why Gian Pieroni stopped working in the automotive industry to co-own Colorado Herbal Imports. And it's why kava bars will likely keep popping up across the country, and kava might become a drug that everyone's heard of.