It was marvellous to see Fiji beat the Poms and win a first gold medal for the Pacific last week in Rio. It was even better to see the Fijians celebrate their triumph by drinking yaqona (or kava, as it is known in this part of the Pacific) in front of thousands of spectators. We've heard a lot about the necessity of disentangling drugs from the Olympics, and athletes in Rio have endured all sort of peculiar tests for traces of substances deemed illegitimate by the guardians of their sports. Curiously, though, nobody seemed to object to a group of gold medallists consuming a venerable narcotic in full view of fans and cameras.
Kava, it seems, is a drug that can hide in plain sight. A couple of years ago demonstrators up and down New Zealand demanded, and eventually got, a ban on the sale of synthetic cannabis. Our media covered the debate over synthetic pot in great detail, visiting the shops were the stuff was sold and interviewing various users in various states of health. But neither the campaigners against drugs nor the advocates for synthetic pot nor the media ever seemed to notice that scores of ordinary corner dairies in south and west Auckland sell bags of an imported, completely unregulated narcotic every day. Kava is used by many members of Auckland's huge Pacific Islands community, and by a few palangi who have discovered its pleasant effects.
I suspect that the protesters and the media ignore kava because it doesn't fit some of the stereotypes they hold about recreational drugs. Kava users don't end up holding up dairies or begging outside the Warehouse for money to buy another fix. They do not seclude themselves shamefacedly from the rest of society when they enjoy the drug. Kava drinking is an activity that ornaments rather than disrupts lives.
I hope that the Fijians' very public endorsement of kava will prompt greater interest in the drug outside the Pacific. I can't help thinking that regions like Europe and the Middle East would be better off if their populations took to ingesting some of the drug at the end of the day. Kava relaxes its users without addling their brains, and makes them sociable yet not voluble. It is not surprising that Melanesians often use the drug in ceremonies designed to settle disputes and ameliorate bad feelings. Imagine how much more pleasant the bars and streets of Bolton or Scunthorpe would be at two o'clock on a Saturday morning, if punters had been drinking kava rather than lager. Picture how much more smoothly Middle East peace negotiations might proceed,if they were held around a bowl of kava.
I wrote a little about the kava culture of Tonga here
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]