Kava in the Northern Territory: a Unique Situation


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By Superintendent Tony Fuller

From the March 2013 issue of the APJ.

Kava is a drug most commonly associated with communities in the South Pacific and until fairly recently its use was largely confined to those communities. It is a muddy and not particularly pleasant-tasting drink which produces feelings of relaxation and euphoria.

The Northern Territory is in a unique situation as North East Arnhem Land is the only location in Australia that has such a high level of abuse of kava, or the criminal activity that supports its distribution, sale and misuse. This activity contributes to significant social, health and financial impacts on remote Indigenous communities and their residents.

There is an established criminal network reaching from Sydney into the remote outstations of Arnhem Land. This network is led by Pacific Islanders, predominantly of Tongan descent, who import kava into Australia by a number of methods and then transport it via a number of changing supply routes into Arnhem Land for sale and abuse.

The profit margins are significant with indications that a considerable amount of the profits made in remote Indigenous communities are diverted to Tonga and Tongan communities in Sydney.  

As an example of the profit margins, a kilogram of kava can be purchased for less than $50 in the Pacific Islands and around $60 in Sydney. Currently, a 30-gram bag of kava sells for $50 [1] or more in most North East Arnhem communities. Thus a $50 outlay will return anywhere between $1,500 and $1,700.

Currently it is legal to import and possess two kilograms of kava per person into Australia. In the Northern Territory the possession of 2 kilograms or less of kava is legal provided the person who has it in their possession purchased it and carried it with them from a country where the sale is legal. Otherwise it is illegal and the penalty for the possession of two kilograms of kava or less in the NT is simply its forfeiture and destruction.

There are polarised views in relation to the kava situation in Arnhem Land. A number of Indigenous elders support and prefer the use of kava over other substances and advocate for the return of it to legitimate sale so profits can be used by the community. Conversely, others blame the abuse of kava for the lethargy of community members and the resultant social and health impacts.

[1] Recent intelligence indicates price has risen from $30 to $50 per 30-gram bag. 


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