As any long-time reader of this blog knows, I am constantly on the lookout for any news stories about kava kava. I have been blessed to learn so much about kava kava’s traditional uses outside of my home islands, the developing research on her health benefits, and her emergence at long last as an accepted herbal medicine among many Western health practitioners. Yet in all the years I’ve been reading and writing about kava, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a story as surprising as the curious case of fake kava which I’m about to relate to you all below.
1996 was an exciting year in many ways: we were counting down not just to the end of the (Western) century but also the millennium, and many changes already seemed to be afoot—including the introduction of a safe and natural herb for relaxation and anxiety relief into the world market. I don’t have to tell you readers that that herb was my favorite plant in the world, kava kava! Of course, as kava became more and more famous, other less salubrious enterprises also began to take notice; specifically, those looking for the latest “herbal high” or some other such nonsense. Now, you know me, readers: I have never and will never represent kava as a “herbal high” or any such frivolous designation. Kava kava is a sacred elixir among my people, used with the utmost respect to improve our health and well-being as well as the harmony of our communities. Unfortunately, during its heady emergence into the world market, some people misrepresented kava in just the way described above, and that is where the curious case of fake kava comes into play.
The details were reported in the Society for Science-Based Medicine’s quarterly newsletter  in 1997: David Bricker, a California chiropractor, was fined $2000 and sentenced to three months in prison and three months in a halfway house for sickening over 100 partygoers at a Los Angeles “rave”-style New Year’s Eve party that drew more than 10,000 guests. In an attempt to establish himself as a source of “party drugs”, Bricker was giving out free samples of cherry, orange and lemon-flavored liquids which he claimed contained an extract of kava.
(Already I was disgusted just reading this story. There’s a world of difference between partaking of kava at a family gathering, ceremony, or even a friendly bar where the root is prepared with care and respect, and knocking back a mysterious liquid in the belief it will get one “high” for the purpose of partying. Forgive me my little aside, but this report really struck a nerve with me. All right, back to the story!)
However, as he was unable to obtain kava extract in time for the party, Bricker had substituted the industrial chemical 1,4-butanediol, a chemical relative of GHB (gamma hydroxybutyric acid). Although some people use GHB or, more rarely, 1,4-butanediol as a recreational substance, both chemicals have serious safety concerns associated with them. They have the potential to cause central nervous system toxicity, coma, respiratory depression, and even death at too-high doses. Yikes! In contrast, kava does not cause central nervous system depression, mental fogginess, or affect breathing. Bricker knowingly substituted a dangerous chemical for kava kava, and 100 partygoers fooled by his scheme suffered harm as a result. If this story doesn’t illustrate the pitfalls of trying to market kava as a “legal high”, I don’t know what does!
I found myself wondering, what is 1,4-butanediol and what possessed Bricker to substitute it for kava? Well, it turns out that 1,4-butanediol is a pro-drug of GHB, which means it metabolizes to GHB in the bloodstream . Gamma hydroxybutyric acid is naturally produced in small quantities in the human brain, as well as in certain foods such as beef, fermented alcohols like beer and wine, and small citrus fruits. In its sodium salt form, GHB is used to treat insomnia, narcolepsy (a sleep disorder where people suddenly and uncontrollably fall asleep), and sometimes alcoholism. Some people also use GHB recreationally because it has stimulating effects in small doses and sedating effects in larger doses, and can reduce inhibition, increase the sense of touch, and produce a sense of euphoria.
Superficially, I do suppose the effects of increasing the sense of well-being while lowering inhibition are similar to kava kava. The problem is that GHB carries some serious risks and potential side effects which kava does not: taking a too-large dose of GHB can produce dizziness, agitation, respiratory depression, sudden unconsciousness, and even coma or death from its depressant effect on respiration. People have died from overdoses of GHB alone or combined with alcohol, since it also stretches the time it takes for alcohol to be eliminated from the body and can amplify alcohol’s depressant effects on the brain. Yikes again!
In contrast, even in studies that measured the effects of very large doses of kava (up to 45,000 milligrams! ), kava kava does not cause respiratory or central nervous system depression. Repeated studies have bolstered kava’s safety when used appropriately. In addition, Pacific Islanders have been using kava safely for at least a millennium (at far higher doses than the 300mg per day recommended by the American Herbal Products Association, I might add).
You might rightly ask, “Does this story still matter in 2014?” After all, there have been many more positive stories about kava crowding the news since the WHO released its favorable report on kava in 2007. However, I believe it does still matter, in part because this story continues to be reported by legitimate news sources as evidence of kava’s potential toxicity. I kid you not, dear readers: according to the American Botanical Council’s HerbalGram on kava , the 1996 fake kava incident has been lumped into the count of case studies involving kava as a potentially toxic substance—even though the illnesses reported in this case had nothing to do with kava. None of the people who got sick ingested kava. They ingested 1, 4-butanediol, a chemical relative of GHB.
Unfortunately, the true identity of kava continues to escape some people in the mainstream media. I recently encountered a news story  that claimed kratom was an ingredient in kava kava! You can bet I reread that line a few times to see if I was mistaken, but alas, no! If the writer had done some cursory research, he would have learned that kratom (Mitragyna speciosa) is a totally different plant: it is a tree from Southeast Asia, while kava (Piper methysticum) is a vine from the South Pacific. Neither plant is an “ingredient” of the other.
Though I’m angered and saddened by the mix-ups that have labeled kava as something it is not, I am also heartened to see fewer and fewer such instances emerging in the reporting around kava. With the rise of rigorous kava studies, reputable kava vendors, and a worldwide community of kava aficionados dedicated to disseminating correct information about kava wherever possible, I hope for a future in which those interested can get the real facts about kava and her benefits to mind, body and spirit.
1. “Chiropractor Jailed for Making Partygoers Sick.” July-August 1998. Society for Science-Based Medicine Wiki. Accessed May 14th, 2014. http://sfsbm.org/wiki2/index.php?title=NCHAF_News_V21N4#CHIROPRACTOR_JAILED_FOR_MAKING_PARTYGOERS_SICK.
2. “Gamma hydroxybutyric acid.” Wikipedia. Accessed May 7th, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gamma-Hydroxybutyric_acid.
3. Blumenthal, Mark. 2002. “Kava safety questioned due to case reports of liver toxicity”. HerbalGram 55: 26-32. American Botanical Council.
4. Gyllenhaal, Randy. October 18th, 2013. “Couple’s Kava Addiction Leads to Lawsuit”. West Palm Beach County News. http://www.wpbf.com/news/south-florida/palm-beach-county-news/couples-kava-addiction-leads-to-lawsuit/22513616#!Nv7E5.