Is Kava Considered a Drug?

Is Kava Considered a Drug?

April 21, 2023

estimated read time - 11 min

Kava has a rich history in the Pacific Islands, where it was traditionally used for sacred ceremonies and as a traditional medicine. Nowadays, more and more people are turning to kava for its relaxing and calming effects, which has made it even more popular.

However, there's some debate going on about whether kava should be classified as a drug or a dietary supplement.

What is a Drug?

The word "drug" often comes with an air of negativity in our social landscape. Many millenials to baby boomers still remember the negative connotations seared into the ever-present frying-egg-drug commercials of the 90's. But we must remember that drugs also include pharmaceutical drugs (which is arguable in their safety). In general, a drug is a substance that can serve various purposes such as diagnosing, preventing, treating, or alleviating symptoms of a disease or health condition. Additionally, drugs have the potential to alter the functions of the brain and body, leading to changes in mood, perception, and behavior. Some drugs can even enhance the production of specific neurotransmitters in the brain, while others can inhibit their release.

Depending on the purpose and legality of their use, drugs can be categorized as either prescription medications, over-the-counter drugs, or illicit substances. While some drugs are strictly intended for medical treatment, others may be abused for recreational purposes (ie, street versions of heroin, cocaine, etc)

Types of Drugs

  • Stimulants are psychoactive substances that increase activity in the central nervous system, leading to heightened alertness, attention, and energy levels. They boost the levels of neurotransmitters like dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, which regulate mood, attention, and motivation. Stimulants such as cocaine, amphetamines, and caffeine have medical applications, but can also be abused, potentially leading to harmful effects on an individual's health and well-being.
  • Depressants, on the other hand, decrease central nervous system activity, resulting in relaxation, sedation, and reduced anxiety. They increase activity in the neurotransmitter channels, mainly GABA, which inhibits specific brain signals and decreases nervous system activity. This slowdown in brain activity produces calming effects on the body. Examples of depressants include alcohol, benzodiazepines, and barbiturates.
  • Hallucinogens are substances that can alter an individual's perception, thoughts, and emotions, leading to hallucinations and distorted reality. They produce effects that vary depending on the substance, dose, and an individual's tolerance, potentially causing feelings of euphoria, terror, or both (yes it's possible). Examples of hallucinogens include LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, and Mescaline. These substances are generally considered illegal due to their high potential for abuse and psychological dependence, although some users report positive effects such as increased creativity, spirituality, and recovering abilities from substance abuse.
  • Opioids are a class of drugs that connect to specific receptors in the brain and body, reducing pain perception and producing a sense of pleasure, relaxation, and euphoria. While effective for relieving acute or chronic pain, opioids are highly addictive and may lead to overdose and other negative consequences. They include both illegal drugs such as morphine or heroin, and legal prescription drugs such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, and fentanyl.
  • Cannabis is a plant-derived substance containing over a hundred chemical compounds called cannabinoids. The two main cannabinoids are THC, which produces a "high" affecting mental state, and CBD, which is non-psychoactive and has potential medicinal uses. Cannabis has been used recreationally and medicinally for thousands of years, and is typically consumed orally, smoked, or vaporized. The effects of cannabis vary depending on dose, consumption method, body weight, and tolerance, potentially leading to relaxation, altered perception of time, increased appetite, and dry mouth, among other effects.
  • Prescription drugs are medications available only with a doctor's prescription, used to treat medical conditions such as pain, anxiety, and depression. They are regulated by the government and strictly monitored for sale and distribution. Prescription drugs are designed to be used under a healthcare professional's supervision to track the patient's development and adjust the dosage as necessary. They must undergo rigorous testing, including clinical trials, to ensure safety and efficacy, and should always be taken according to a physician's instructions to avoid potential side effects and interactions with other medications.
  • Over-the-counter drugs (OTC) are medications that can be purchased without a prescription and are commonly used to treat minor illnesses and symptoms such as pain, allergies, colds, and flu. They are still regulated by the FDA and must meet safety and efficacy standards. It is essential to read and follow the label's instructions to ensure effectiveness and avoid possible side effects.
  • Performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) are substances that athletes, bodybuilders, and others use to improve physical strength, performance, and endurance. They may also help in building muscle, reducing body fat, or improving recovery time between workouts. Some PEDs are legal and require a healthcare professional's prescription, while others are illegal and obtained unlawfully. Using PEDs for non-medical purposes is illegal and prohibited by most sports organizations as cheating, resulting in penalties for athletes(8).

What is a supplement?

Supplements come in various forms such as pills, powders, liquids, capsules, and even gummies, and they are designed to provide extra nutrients like minerals, vitamins, amino acids, or other substances. However, they are not meant to replace a healthy diet but can be beneficial if someone is lacking in specific nutrients.

Types of Supplement

Common types of supplements include vitamins, minerals, herbal supplements, multivitamins, and fish oil supplements.

  • Vitamins are crucial for proper body development and function, and they offer essential nutrients like vitamin C, vitamin D, and vitamin E.
  • Minerals, on the other hand, provide essential minerals like calcium, magnesium, and iron, which are necessary for maintaining good health.
  • Herbal supplements are made from plant extracts with therapeutic characteristics and are often used to promote overall health and wellness.
  • Multivitamins include a combination of vitamins and minerals to ensure the body is receiving all the necessary nutrients.
  • Fish oil supplements contain Omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for heart and brain health.

While some supplements have been proven effective through clinical studies, others have not been thoroughly examined for safety and potency. In the US, supplements are classified under the food category rather than drugs and are not subjected to the same rigorous testing and approval procedures. Nevertheless, supplement manufacturers should be responsible for ensuring the quality and safety of their products(9).

Drugs vs. Supplements

Difference between drugs and supplements

Supplements and drugs have several differences.

  1. Regulation: In the US, the Food and Drug Administration regulates drugs, while supplements are regulated by the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. Unlike drugs, supplements do not undergo extensive testing and approval procedures (1).
  2. Intented use: Supplements are meant to provide additional nutrients to the body, while drugs are intended to cure, treat or prevent illnesses. It is prohibited for supplements to claim that they can cure any illness.
  3. Active ingredients: The active ingredients in drugs have been thoroughly tested for safety and potency, while supplements may contain vitamins, herbs, minerals, and other botanicals that have not been as rigorously examined.
  4. Dosage: Drugs are typically prescribed by healthcare professionals and have specific dosages, while supplements are available without a prescription and do not have a specific recommended dosage.
  5. Side effects: Although supplements are generally considered safe, they can have potential side effects. In contrast, drugs can also have side effects, but these are closely monitored by healthcare professionals.

Classification of kava

Is kava considered a drug?

Kava's classification varies from country to country and it can be marketed as a dietary supplement or regulated as a drug. The debate on whether kava should be classified as a drug revolves around its potential for abuse and dependence. Reports suggest that kava users may experience withdrawal symptoms upon discontinuation but not necessarily become addicted in the classical form of addiction.

Kava COULD be classified as a drug due to several reasons.

  1. kavalactones: kava's active compounds, called kavalactones, have psychoactive effects that interact with neurotransmitters in the brain. This can result in calming and mood-enhancing effects that resemble drug-like effects. Kavalactones may also have mind-altering effects on the central nervous system, further classifying it as a drug.
  2. potential for abuse and dependance: kava has the potential for abuse and dependence, especially when consumed in large quantities or for extended periods. Tolerance, withdrawal, and dependence are all characteristics of drug use that may occur with heavy and daily kava use.
  3. regulatory status: several countries, including Australia, regulate kava as a drug, with some even banning or restricting its use due to safety concerns such as liver toxicity and potential drug interactions.

But surprise surprise, it is not considered to be a drug

In the US, kava is classified as a dietary supplement and is not a controlled substance, but is subject to FDA regulations. The FDA has issued advisories regarding the potential health risks associated with kava, and has been closely monitoring reports of side effects since 2002(11). Some states in the US also have their own regulations over kava, such as requiring warning labels on products and prohibiting driving under the influence of kava.

In Canada, kava is classified as a natural health product and regulated under the Natural Health Products Regulations, but is not allowed to be sold due to its potential for liver damage. However, it can be sold if it is part of an approved product by Health Canada.

HOWEVER, In Australia, kava is considered a depressant drug and its importing, distribution, and advertising are strictly controlled by the government. Companies can import kava products as long as they meet Australia's national food standard, but state and territory governments still have the final say on whether kava can be sold or bought in their respective territories(12).

Some countries, such as England, Germany, Switzerland, and others, have also classified kava as a drug due to its potential for liver toxicity and negative interactions with other substances. Kava supplements are considered safe if taken in moderation, but long-term and heavy use of kava is still a topic of discussion. Some experts insist that kava should be regulated as a drug due to its potential for negative side effects and interactions with medications.

If you’re interested to know about the legality of kava in your country, check out our blog here.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does kava cause a high?

Kava is known to have psychoactive properties, but it is not known to produce a “high” the same way some illicit substances like marijuana and opioids do. The kavalactones in kava have shown to produce sedative and anxiolytic properties, but its effects are milder, and they include feelings of relaxation, stress relief, sedation and mild euphoria. We kind of compare this to a very strong chamomile tea (The flowery one your grandmother drank every evening). Kava's effects are well-known and may help ease stress and anxiety.  

Kava’s effects depend on some factors which include the dosage, the quality of kava, the person’s tolerance towards kava. It is important to consume kava in moderation as it can have side effects when taken in excessive amounts.

Does kava show up on drug tests?

Technically, kava will not show up in drug tests unless specifically checked, however there do not currently exist any drug tests that test for kava. Majority of the drug tests are designed to detect illegal substances such as marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, opioids, and benzodiazepines. Since kava is not illegal, it is not normally included in drug tests.

However, if an organization has concerns regarding the use of kava, they may include kava in the drug test, assuming they can create a drug test for kava.


In conclusion, there are different types of drugs and supplements but the classification of kava is different in each country. Kava may be considered a dietary supplement or a drug depending on the country's regulations and their view on the potential health risk of the product. In the US, kava is considered a dietary supplement, however sellers and consumers are advised to follow the warnings and guidelines set by the government.

Concerns on kava's potential for health risks, dependency and abuse have influenced other countries like the United Kingdom, Greece and some Western countries to regulate kava as a drug and should have a prescription. It is recommended to consume kava in moderation to avoid possible side effects. If you’re thinking of taking kava, it is best to consult a health professional first to ensure safety.  

Please do remember we are not medically trained physicians and nothing in here should be substituted for medical advice.


  1. Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994
  3. NCCIH and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) November 2019
  4. Malfait, A. M., Gallily, R. , Sumariwalla, P. F., Malik, A. S., Andreakos E., Mechoulam, R., and Feldmann, M. The nonpsychoactive cannabis constituent cannabidiol is an oral anti-arthritic therapeutic in murine collagen-induced arthritis. August 1, 2000.
  5. NIDA. 2021, April 19. What are marijuana's effects?. Retrieved from on 2023, April 19
  6. Clarke, Pat. How FDA strives to ensure the safety of OTC products. FDA. 03/10/2016.
  7. Dandoy C, Gereige RS. Performance-enhancing drugs. Pediatr Rev. 2012 Jun;33(6):265-71; quiz 271-2. doi: 10.1542/pir.33-6-265. PMID: 22659257; PMCID: PMC4528343.
  8. Kathryn Henne, Benjamin Koh, Vanessa McDermott. Coherence of drug policy in sports: Illicit inclusions and illegal inconsistencies. Performance Enhancement & Health, Volume 2, Issue 2, 2013. Pages 48-55, ISSN 2211-2669.
  9. Dietary Supplements: What You Need to Know. National Institute of Health, Office of the Dietary Supplements. Updated: January 4, 2023. 
  10. Kava (Other Names: Ava, Intoxicating Pepper, Kawa Kawa, Kew, Sakau, Tonga, Yangona). Drug Enforcement Administration Diversion Control Division Drug & Chemical Evaluation Section. September 2019. 
  12. New kava regulations in Australia. Alcohol and Drug Foundation. April 27, 2022.


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