A drug considered addictive and dangerous by many countries is in the process of being granted unrestricted access to Australia.
Some experts are warning about the health fallout from that political decision announced by Prime Minister Scott Morrison to allow unrestricted sales of kava.
Kava is a popular ceremonial drink in the Pacific Islands made from the root of a shrub which is said to produce drowsiness or sedative, hypnotic effects
Police are battling to restrict its use in dry Aboriginal communities in northern Australia where it was introduced as a replacement for alcohol.
Prime Minister Morrison announced a trial to end bans on kava imports in 2019.
"The intent of the pilot program is to provide Pacific Island communities in Australia with better access to kava for cultural use as well as provide export opportunities for Pacific Island nations," a Therapeutic Goods Administration spokeswoman said.
A kava pilot scheme began in December 2019 to allow Pacific arrivals to each bring up to 4kg of kava (powder) into Australia.
This second phase of the two-year trial starting in December allows for unlimited commercial importation of kava for food use.
COVID-19 travel restrictions are known to have impacted the trial.
Kava is produced from the roots of the Piper methysticum shrub, also called the native pepper bush, and there is a suggestion if the trial is successful that bush could be grown in Queensland as a tropical crop.
But kava has many opponents.
It is still illegal to be found in possession of more than two kilograms of kava in the Northern Territory.
International health authorities say kava can cause liver toxicity if overused.
It is already available in Australia in small quantities through many herbal supplements mainly for the treatment of sleeplessness and anxiety.
Australia's food label regulators Food Standards Australia New Zealand are playing catch up on regulating kava's arrival and have declared the issue urgent.
FSANZ says it needed to "clarify the existing permission for kava to ensure it continues to protect public health and safety".
The regulator says kava "has a demonstrated potential to become a substance of abuse" and said high consumption can "adversely impact health and well-being".
"Evidence of negative health outcomes have been observed in communities with established patterns of ongoing high-level consumption of kava beverage. Such ongoing high-level consumption has been associated with a scaly skin rash, altered liver function and other general reductions in overall health."
Regulators want to change food laws so kava beverages can only be produced "for immediate consumption at the place of preparation".
This would continue to ban the the use of kava as an ingredient in other foods or its sale for home use.
But that horse may have already bolted.
"FSANZ's assessment also found some evidence that kava products (pre beverages or kava relation to kava. packaged kava root powders) that contain food additives or may be produced using processing aids, are available on the market in Australia and New Zealand," a report states.
"The possible expansion of permitted kava products and increased consumption of kava products is considered a health and safety risk to the populations of Australia and New Zealand in terms of the acute effect (intoxication) as well as the potential for misuse by consumers.
"Past importation of kava led to well documented severe adverse health, safety, social and economic problems in some Australian First Nations communities, which could be exacerbated with the potential increased availability."
FSANZ wants to restrict the use of kava to ceremonial use only.
Regulators say in the four years before a 2007 restriction on commercial kava imports, an average of 70 tonnes of kava was imported into Australia each year.
FSANZ hopes to finalise its changes by the end of the year.
The government passed questions about the kava trial from the Prime Minister's office, to the Health Department and then to the TGA.
A TGA spokeswoman said the intent of the pilot program is to provide Pacific Island communities in Australia with better access to kava for cultural use as well as provide export opportunities for Pacific Island nations.
The trial will run for two years and includes monitoring by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre and Ninti One Limited, an Indigenous owned organisation.
MORE READING: Cottoning on to a new crop in the north.
"The evaluation will assess the health, social, cultural and economic effects of the pilot on the Australian community," the spokeswoman said.
"Regular reporting will be provided, including through formal progress reports to the Department of Health on a six-monthly basis. The final report, due in mid-2023, will detail key findings on the health, social, cultural and economic effects of the pilot, and will inform future government policy.
The spokeswoman said the government was taking "a measured approach" to kava's introduction and "will consider the findings of the monitoring and evaluation exercise, as well as other feedback, before determining any future policy on kava".
Start the day with all the big news in agriculture! Sign up below to receive our daily Farmonline newsletter.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.