When first consumed, kava causes a numbing sensation in the mouth and tongue. The active compounds in kava bind onto the brain receptors in the amygdala, which regulates feelings of fear and anxiety.
The intensity of kava’s effects vary from person to person depending on the amount consumed.
One kava drinker who tried the strongest drink at Krave, known as the Kava Crush, said the drink left them feeling slightly drunk.
“In the first hour or so, it was like I was drunk,” said sophomore Cody Weyhrich. “But as it progressed I started feeling nauseous.”
Gardner said kava alters the mood, not the mind, but like with any substance, if drinkers feel their judgment is impaired, they shouldn’t operate a vehicle.
“If you feel that your normal faculties are impaired from anything — doesn’t matter what it is — if you were to the point where your normal faculties are impaired, then you shouldn’t drive a vehicle,” Gardner said.
There is no legal limit for kava like there is with alcohol.
Capt. Chris Atack, spokesperson for the Carrboro Police Department, and Lt. Joshua Mecimore, spokesperson for Chapel Hill Police Department, said currently there are no regulations at the state level regarding the consumption of kava and operating a vehicle.
“It’s not a controlled substance — it’s considered a dietary supplement,” Atack said.
Atack said if an officer pulled over a driver who had consumed enough kava to impair their judgment, the officer would use the totality of circumstance to determine whether or not a DWI was justified. There is no breathalyzer test to determine if a person has consumed kava to the point of impairment.
“While there may not be a legal standard of kava, we would hope that people would make the right judgment,” he said.
There are also no legal limits of kava consumption at the national level.
Lyndsay Meyer, a spokesperson for the Food and Drug Administration, said before the agency can take action against kava, they must be able to prove that the supplement is unsafe.
“Under existing law, the FDA can take action to remove dietary supplement products from the market, but the agency must first establish that such products are adulterated, misbranded or not manufactured under Good Manufacturing Practices,” she said.
In 2002, the FDA put out a consumer advisory report regarding the potential risk of severe liver injury associated with the supplement. According to the advisory, a previously healthy young female in the U.S. required a liver transplant after using the kava supplement.
Gardner said this advisory was debunked after it was discovered the kava used in the study was extracted using acetone, which is detrimental to the body. She also said the people in the study had a history of consuming harmful substances, such as alcohol and drugs.
Meyer said the agency is continuing to monitor for safety signals related to kava and will take action based on the level of concern identified.
“The agency faces the challenge of having limited resources to monitor the marketplace for a potentially harmful dietary supplement,” Meyer said.
First-year Jack Tartaglia said he first tried kava a few weeks ago and the drink made him sick.
“It doesn’t taste very good,” he said. “It relaxes you for the first hour, but as it progressed I started feeling nauseous.”
Gardner said oftentimes drinkers feel nauseated because their bodies don’t know how to process the supplement.
“When you drink it the first time your body is like ‘what is this?’” she said. “I don’t want people to drink it and throw up and think the whole experience is that.”
Alex Rich, a regular at Krave, said he started drinking kava eight months ago when he gave up alcohol.
“It doesn’t do much — it’s very subtle compared to tequila,” he said.
“I like bars, I like talking to people. This provides the same environment.”
Senior Caitlin Sommerville said she drinks kava regularly and enjoys the beverage.
“It’s a fun alternative to going out,” she said. “It makes you feel really relaxed and less stressed out.”
Gardner said she got into the kava business after working as a lawyer in Florida and experienced a client who passed away from alcoholism. She said kava is a great alternative to alcohol.
“I can’t watch one more person that I care about do that to themselves,” she said. “If I can provide an outlet to drink safely and occupy their time in a positive way, I see that I’m contributing to a solution.”