WINCHESTER, Va. (WDVM) — Customers may be familiar with some of the items on the menu at Winchester’s newest coffee shop Java Kava–but others might be as foreign to residents as the places where the ingredients originated.
The cafe on the Loudoun Street mall began serving drinks with a twist–notably kava and kratom on July 1.
“You might feel some numbness in your mouth and throat, some tingling,” said Makalla Phelps, whose family owns and operates the shop. She had just poured a dixie cup of kava tea, a murky brown liquid that smelled and tasted earthy. “That’s perfectly normal. That’s what it supposed to do.”
Phelps and her younger sister Cloe run the store along with their father Scott Phelps and mother Courtney Maloney. Makalla Phelps says the family first learned of the kratom plant when her father was searching for an alternative medicine to replace his pain killers.
After stumbling upon kratom, a South Asian evergreen that is related to the coffee family, Scott Phelps was able to go off his medication and simply use kratom products. The family continues trying other herbal medicines and found that the kava root helped with Makalla Phelps’ anxiety.
“It’s really helpful with like relaxing and it’s helpful with like insomnia,” said Cloe Phelps. “But the misconception with it is that people thinks it inebriates you but it doesn’t.”
Neither plant is regulated in the United States, and Makalla Phelps admits they are controversial products.
“A lot of places that have it, like smoke shops, which is where basically right now the only place where you can get kratom and maybe kava, maybe they have it. Maybe not,” she said. “You know those carry their own sort of stigma around them.”
For some, the lack of regulation is reason to pause.
In 2016, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency attempted to label kratom as a Schedule 1 drug, alongside substances such as heroin, marijuana, and LSD, although the effort was eventually dropped. The Food and Drug Administration continues to advise Americans against consumption of the kratom leaf or powdered forms due to the lack of regulation and a 2002 report by the FDA linked the kava plant to liver failure.
“If you’re buying either of these substances you don’t know whether something else is in there either until such time as more research is done and it’s FDA regulated,” said Dr. Colin Greene, the Director of the Lord Fairfax Health District.
Greene warns consumers that simply because something is a natural product doesn’t mean it’s inherently safe.
“Poison ivy is natural,” he said. “Snake venom is natural, but you don’t want that in your body.”
Makalla Phelps says the safety of their customers is their primary priority. She says she has thrown out entire shipments of kratom powder due to contamination of heavy metals and E. Coli before.
“Our kratom comes in, before we even sell it to anyone, open it, put it in, bring it in the doors we ship it off to California to get tested for heavy metals, for bacteria, for anything that could potentially harm people,” she said.
Both products, while unregulated, are completely legal in Virginia. However, Greene recommends the following people avoid the supplements: pregnant women, women who are nursing, women who are trying to become pregnant, and anyone under the age of 25.
Correction: The broadcast version of this story incorrectly refers to the name of the business as Kava Java. The name is actually Java Kava. We apologize for the confusion.