Get Involved
About Us
Our Members
Kava: The Pacific Drug.
by Vincent Lebot Mark Merlin, and Lamont Lindstrom. 1992. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT. Hardcover 255 pp. $45. ISBN 0-30005213.8. Available from ABC Books.

This book constitutes the definitive work on this interesting traditional plant of the South Sea islanders. Kava (Piper methysticum) is employed as a "Southsea cocktail" in Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, and even as far north as Hawaii where it was introduced by Polynesians centuries ago. The title of the book is a double entendre connoting not only the geographical source of the herb, but also one of its primary properties. Ritual use of Kava drinks is employed for a variety of social and cultural purposes, including marital rites, as well as a form of dispute resolution wherein the opposing parties imbibe the drink made from the root which has the effect of pacifying the disputants and aiding them in resolving their differences. The herb has been used as a mild sedative and currently a European manufacturer is developing semi-synthetic sedatives from the kavalactones, the principal active ingredients.

The book is divided into seven primary chapters: Botany: Morphology, Biogeography, and Origin; Chemistry: Active Principles and Their Effects; Ethnobotany: Cultivation, Classification, Preparation, and Medicinal Use; Anthropology: The Cultural Significance and Social Uses of Kava; Economics: Kava as a Cash Crop; and Kava: A World Drug?

The authors are quick to point out that contrary to some previous ethnobotanical writing based on observations by British explorer Captain James Cook in the 1700s, "Kava is neither a hallucinogenic nor a stupefacient. Rather, the drag is a mild narcotic, a soporific, a diuretic and a major muscle relaxant." It should be noted that in this case these authors use the term "narcotic to refer to a sleep-inducing substance -- not in the modern sense where the word often is used in terms of the illicit drugs that cause a high degree of chemical dependency. The authors continue, "Kava may induce sociability, feelings of peace and harmony, and in large doses, sleep, or it may fail to produce relaxation and provoke nausea. Typically, however, Kava evokes atmosphere of relaxation and easy sociability among the drinkers." They continue, "Although we use the terms intoxication, drunkenness, and inebriation to describe human physiological reaction to the plant, this state differs from that induced by ethanol or other familiar drugs found in the Western world."

There is no doubt that Kava will become increasingly popular as an ingredient in herbal products during the 1990s. Health professionals, herbalists, and members of industry are well-advised to obtain this important and comprehensive book.

Article copyright American Botanical Council.