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The Drug Enforcement Administration is pausing its kratom ban partially because the Internet got really mad about it. Video provided by Newsy Newslook

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Four years ago Caroline Rusher was working as a stewardess on private yachts in Fort Lauderdale.

The work was non-stop. She felt stressed and had trouble sleeping at night.

Then one of her friends took her to a kava bar, which served drinks made from the root of a plant grown in the Pacific Islands. It’s said to promote calm and relaxation.

“I tried it, and it totally helped,” she said. “I was like, ‘Wow I feel good and I’m not stressed anymore.’ Then I fell in love with the culture behind it and the community, too.”

Fast forward to 2017. Rusher, 32, and her sister Jacqueline, 35, opened Kava Culture Kava Bar in Bonita Springs last month to introduce people to kava, promote health and share the same feeling of community Caroline said she experienced when she first tried it.

“One of the coolest things for me about kava bars is you walk in and you’re actually a person,” Rusher said. “It’s this cool vibe where you can meet people, and it becomes a community.”

With the launch of their new business, Caroline and Jacqueline Rusher have joined a wave of trendy kava bars that have taken off in recent years.

In Florida, kava bars have popped up on the Gulf Coast in St. Petersburg and along the southeast coast in cities like West Palm Beach, Delray Beach and Fort Lauderdale. 

In Southwest Florida, Kapua Kava Bar in Fort Myers boasts being the area's first full-service kava bar and lounge

But in the Pacific Islands, where kava is grown, the relaxing beverage also is used in spiritual ceremonies rooted in ancestral culture.

The ceremonial significance of the drink is something Caroline Rusher wanted to share with others when she and her sister opened their Bonita Springs location. 

"Kava is traditionally drank to promote connection and togetherness, so the ceremony part of it is very important," she said. "The entire reason of having a kava bar is for that togetherness and that community."

At Kava Culture, at 28450 U.S. 41 in Bonita Springs, the bar's menu includes drinks primarily made with either the kava root or kratom leaves, which the sisters said they get from wholesale vendors.

“We did a lot of research on who we wanted to go with,” Rusher said. “Our main thing here is we try to be as organic as possible. Everything here is organic. Our kratom, our kava, our coffee, our syrups, everything. It was really important for us to stay true to that.”

Kava and kratom provide different effects when ground down and made into drinks, Rusher said. Kava comes from a plant in the pepper family, while kratom, which is native to Southeast Asia, comes from plants in the coffee family.

“They’re very different,” Rusher said. “It depends on what kind of mood you’re in. Kava is more calming. Kratom is energizing and mood-boosting.”

Drinking kava might elevate your mood and make you feel more relaxed. Some studies also have shown that kava can improve anxiety, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center

The Rusher sisters said kava has what they call a "reverse tolerance."

“The first time I tried it, I had to have three full shells for what I had to feel now after one,” Jacqueline Rusher said. “You have to drink more in the beginning to feel it right away.”

And when you are served a bowl of kava, the bar’s kava-tenders will instruct you to lift your bowl in the air and shout “Bula!” a ceremonial cheer.

Kratom beverages are brewed and steeped, like tea. The kava bar typically serves kratom with fruit juices such as mango or guava.

“I like kratom during the day. It helps me focus,” Caroline Rusher said. “It’s a mood booster and it gives you a calm feeling of well-being.”

Despite the sought-after effects of kava and kratom, both come with health advisories from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

A 2002 advisory from the FDA warns consumers about the potential risk of liver injury from dietary supplements that contain kava.

On Nov. 14, the FDA also released a public health advisory warning of deadly risks associated with using kratom.

The FDA cautions that kratom has similar effects to opioids and similar risks of abuse and addiction. Kratom also is a controlled substance in 16 countries and banned in several states in the U.S., according to the FDA.

The Drug Enforcement Agency also has battled kratom. In August 2016, the DEA announced its intention to classify kratom as a Schedule I substance, but the organization eventually withdrew the decision. Schedule I drugs are deemed to have no accepted medical use and are considered to have a "high potential for abuse."

Kava and kratom both remain legal across Florida, except in Sarasota County where county commissioners voted to ban kratom in 2014. The commission lists kratom as a designer drug and made it illegal to possess or sell it in Sarasota County.

In Florida, state Rep. Kristin Jacobs, a Democrat representing a Broward County district, has tried and failed twice to have kratom researched and considered as a controlled substance at the state level. In 2015, HB 287 died in the state Justice Appropriations Subcommittee. In 2016, HB 73 failed to leave the state Judiciary Committee

Knowing this, the Rusher sisters said they try to inform people as much as they can about the two supplements. The Bonita Springs kava bar has books and laminated handouts with details on kava and kratom.

“It’s really about educating people,” Caroline Rusher said. “That’s why we have the books. We don’t want anyone to think it’s something that it’s not.”

As an extra precaution, the bar limits kava and kratom drinks to customers who are 18 years or older.

“It’s all about knowing your body. It’s all about balance,” Jacqueline Rusher said.

Kava Culture has taken off in the month since the sisters opened the business in October.

By day the kava bar takes on the atmosphere of a coffee shop. By night it transforms into a lounge.

Word of mouth is how Eddie Rose found the Bonita Springs kava bar. After teaching a class at the Happehatchee Center in Estero, a few of Rose’s students asked him whether he wanted to visit Kava Culture.

Rose said he is familiar with kratom and is interested in holistic and natural lifestyles. But when his students mentioned the kava bar, he thought they had said “java.”

“When I saw it was a kava bar, I flipped out,” Rose said. “I’ve read about it, but I never actually have been to one. I came here, and I’ve been in love with the place ever since.”

Rose even started a self-defense class at Kava Culture at 10 a.m. Saturday mornings. It’s just one of myriad events that now take place at the kava bar throughout the week.

For the two sisters, the last month has been a whirlwind of meeting new people and introducing them to the benefits they see in kava and kratom.

“It’s been exciting,” Jacqueline Rusher said. “Everyone has been so receptive, so much that we’re thinking about where we are going to expand to.”

For Caroline Rusher, it’s satisfying to look at the welcoming environment she and her sister have created and how people in the area have responded to it.

“To me, watching people thrive and find an alternative that’s healthy for them and actually promotes their life instead of hinders it, it’s deep in my heart.”

If You Go

Kava Culture Kava Bar in Bonita Springs

>>Where: 24850 U.S. 41, Bonita Springs

>>Hours: 10 a.m. to 1 a.m.

>>More Information: kavaculture.us

>>Follow: On Facebook at Kava Culture Kava Bar and on Instagram at @kavaculture

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