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Yowza. I thought this stuff was supposed to be mild. I’m totally stoned.

That was a thought, one of many surfacing and submerging in my head like slow whales, as I tried to focus on what Jonathan Yee, the guy I was interviewing, was saying. My arms were twitching. I felt like I was under a warm, buzzing blanket as Yee kept talking. I was hearing (most) everything he was saying, with a razor-like focus, but, at the same time, I could see out of the back of my head.

Like I said, I was stoned.

But it wasn’t supposed to be this way. Being the trusty reporter, I volunteered to take some kava on a recent family trip to Hawaii. And I almost didn’t make it. Kava, known to some as kava-kava and to others as awa, is a root that is the source of a drink that has been cherished by Polynesian cultures for thousands of years. It’s still around, but because of the length of time it takes to grow the root to maturity (about three to five years), the difficulty of pounding the root and straining it, and the need to imbibe it soon after, it hasn’t ever really had much of a life too far from the Pacific islands.

Which is a pity, because the stuff is pretty awesome. Just recently, a study was released claiming that kava relieves anxiety. Its sponsor, the University of Melbourne in Australia, says the study is the fist of its kind, but that’s just the latest such report: for quite some time, kava has been spoken of as a relaxant that reduces stress. Hawaiian masseuses use it to help people with muscle strain. For Yee, a kava expert, it’s all of these things, and more: a calmative for insomnia, an anti-inflammatory, an analgesic, and an anti-fungal product. It is also a way of continuing an Island tradition and creating a potential economic engine for a region that needs more resources than tourism.   

To be honest, my recent night with Yee wasn’t my first experience with kava. My first time was as authentic an introduction to a mind-altering substance as I could hope for. Several years ago, I was sitting on a pearly white sand beach in the middle of the night, a lava stone’s throw from the Na Pali trail in Kauai. The moon was as big as I’d ever seen it, and scarily bright. My brother, Richard, and I had pitched our tent and we were listening to the waves when the dense foliage at the edge of the sand began to shake. A creature was definitely stirring in there, but the hyper-real environment didn’t allow fear to set in. We just waited, and soon a shirtless man with a Robinson Crusoe-via-Williamsburg beard appeared.

He was friendly. I forget his name. But he asked us if we wanted to try some kava. I’d never heard of it, so we declined, and we enjoyed the moment for its goofball island charm. But my curiosity got the better of me and I looked into what this kava was, and found a bamboo-walled hut in Kona that served kava. It came in a glass and it tasted kind of bitter with an earthy twinge, like stone soup, and it only gave me the mildest buzz, maybe the equivalent of a slight head rush, and then it was gone.

It didn’t seem like a big deal. And I bet that’s another reason it hasn’t become more popular.

But this time, with Yee, it was different.

We were at Sam’s Kitchen in Honolulu, a hole-in-the-wall surf shack, with reggae music, '70s signage and a grass bar. There was a Japanese family eating fish on one of the six tables, while two very blonde white women spoke with their heads very close to each other.

Sam Monaghan, the owner of the joint, is an amiable guy with a hint of edge; you could imagine Woody Harrelson playing him in a movie. Monaghan has been a personality on a Japanese TV show, and he’s primarily a cook and restaurant owner, but he came to kava after he hurt his leg and he discovered its therapeutic powers.

He and Yee told me about a 25-year-old kava root from Fiji that they recently drank, rhapsodizing about the smooth and powerful effect it had without being astringent.

 Yee, who’s an engineer by trade, has taught kava propagation classes to Hawaiian college students, and is trying to make a business of growing and selling kava, so he can expertly break down the 13 varieties of Hawaiian kava, and describe their distinctions from Samoan kava and those from Fiji.

There’s an art to the straining process, getting the right water to root ratio and how you press it. And it turns out that Monaghan is very adept (as well as being a pretty great cook; the food, garlic shrimp and the tofu poke, served at Sam’s Kitchen was fresh and tasty).

He served us kava, with names like Tongan Pride, Tongan Lightning and Isa, in large plastic flasks. Hawaiian kava is in short supply, so most of his kava comes from near Fiji. (The Sam’s Kitchen I went to has since closed, but there’s another one in Honolulu.)

It’s served at about $5 per 8-ounce cup, and you could drink a lot of the stuff. Maybe I drank too much. My head was swimming as Yee assured me kava doesn’t impair judgment. He cited the one example of someone being possibly adversely affected: a Tongan guy who was stopped by police while driving in California. Apparently, he was driving too slowly.

In truth, maybe I wasn’t so stoned that night (although my head was so cloudy the next morning that I had a very hard time conducting a conversation with my two-year-old), as much as I was high on the experience of a substance that hadn’t been marketed to death (beer cans in bowtie shapes, what?) or fallen into some artisanal cliché (tangerine notes on the award-winning strains of cannabis, please!).

What’s strange about kava is how it appears to be floating outside of the law. In 2002, the FDA issued an advisory that kava might cause severe liver damage, based on reports from Europe. According to Yee, that report took the wind out of what was then a burgeoning industry. He also claimed that the report was faulty and shouldn’t be trusted.

Unfortunately, the FDA hasn’t come up with any more studies in the past 10 years.  And, now, even though kava is sold openly in Hawaii and online (check out Yee’s website), the government seems to be giving it a pass. When I asked the FDA questions, I got the following answer via email from a spokeswoman:

As a botanical it could be considered legal but given the safety concerns we would in all likelihood take action against a kava product that came to market without demonstrating that they have addressed the safety concerns that were put forth in the 2002 advisory on kava. Likely an New Dietary Ingredient (NDI) application would be required.

The key phrase, then, is “came to market.” I repeatedly asked an FDA spokeswoman to clarify this point, seeing that kava can indeed be purchased. But she stopped answering my calls and emails.

Is it a cover-up? No, I think it comes down to the government can turn a blind eye if no producer of kava enters the marketplace in a way that warrants notice, such as by applying for liability insurance. And as long as no one gets hurt on kava, it’s probably going to be left alone.

It’s a funny gray area where few products can tread. Is it a drug? Or a dietary supplement? For now, it’s a free agent. Which is probably fine by most folks interested in producing and imbibing kava. 

Food Republic writers in the wild: Read more of our field reports.