Kava initially produces a slight numbing of the tongue and sometimes the inner lining of the tongue although persistent users of the drink notice these effects to only a slight extent. The active ingredients, a series of crystalline alpha-purones, also allay anxiety and reduce fatigue, although quite different physiological effects, some bordering on intoxication, have been noted in various part of Oceania.
In Western Polynesia some observers (as quoted by Holmes, 1979) describe the effects as follows: “the head is affected pleasantly”, “you feel friendly, not beer sentimental,” “you cannot hate with kava in you”, “kava quiets the mind”, Hocart (1929) observed that kava “gives a pleasant, warm, cheerful but lazy feeling, sociable though not hilarious or loquacious; the reason is not obscured”.
On the other hand, both contemporary observation and historical account of kava drinking outside western Polynesia give a different picture. Handy (1923) states that in the Marquesas “copious draughts causes dizziness and a horrible distorted countenance. They lose the use of their limbs and fall and roll about on the ground, until the stuperfication wears away. King (1785) noted that in Hawaii habitual kava drinker had emaciated limbs and an entire “frame trembling and paralytic accompanied with a disability to raise the head.”
Explanations of these differences in pharmacological effects include the following:
- Different varieties of Piper methysticum are involved. For example, the Samoan variety is considered to be less potent than those cultivated elsewhere.
- The plant is used in different states of freshness or maturity. Many drinkers in Fiji believe that the green root or stem provides the much stronger drink.
- There are differences in the methods of preparing kava. The “Tonga method” and the “Fiji method” have already been described. A third method is only sometimes used and usually with the malicious intention of quickly intoxicating the drinker. For this hot water is used to extract the kava from dry or green stem or root and the drink allowed to cool before serving. The effect far exceeds that of the other two methods of preparation. Obviously, the method of the chemicals extracted from the kava stock and hence determine the strength of the drink.
- Effects may vary according to whether or not drinkers combine kava consumption with eating. Imbibers of the drink often assume that combining feasting with kava injestion may result in less debilitating effects.
- Different psychological attitudes towards kava drinking affects the responses to injestion of the drug. Those who expect or desire intoxicating effects are likely to experience them much as with users of marijuana or similar drugs.