Editor’s note: This is the first story in a podcast and radio series produced by Hawaii Public Radio in collaboration with Honolulu Civil Beat. You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.
About 10 years ago, Hannah Ii-Epstein was an addict. She was 17 when she first turned to crystal meth.
“I was really addicted to just putting things up my nose,” said Ii-Epstein. “I found that meth was the thing that made me actually feel something.”
Ii-Epstein lives in Chicago now, but she grew up surfing at Haleiwa Beach Park on the North Shore of Oahu. Now she’s clean — but she still remembers how crystal meth made her feel.
“I was lost; and it was feeling anything at that point made me feel alive,” she said.
Find this four-episode podcast and radio series at hawaiipublicradio.org
Ii-Epstein is one of many people in Hawaii who have gotten caught up in the cycle of meth abuse. It’s a problem that has plagued the state for decades, and remains apparent across the islands, disrupting lives, clogging courts and filling prison cells.
“I definitely have a lot of experience with the crystal methamphetamine epidemic; I mean, it’s a big part of my job,” said Jim Rouse, a public defender on Maui for most of the last 20 years. When it comes to drug cases, he estimates at least 10 arrive on his desk every week that are meth related.
“Crystal meth touches — and this is a guess — at least 75 percent of the cases. Of the serious cases, not traffic,” Rouse explained. “Property crimes, obviously the drug crimes themselves, even violent crimes. There’s usually some meth component to it.”
In 2014, the U.S. Sentencing Commission reported that 26 percent of drug convictions nationwide involved methamphetamine. In Hawaii, the figure was 77 percent — nearly triple the national number.
Last year the gap was even wider. Nationally, methamphetamine played a role in 28.5 percent of drug convictions in federal court. In Hawaii, meth was part of nearly 94 percent of such cases.
“If you really look, it’s everywhere,” said Gary Yabuta, the executive director of the Hawaii High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a federal law-enforcement-cooperation organization funded through the White House. Before that, he was the chief of the Maui Police Department for five years.
“My rural districts — Molokai, Lanai — they were so much infected on it and still are infected on it,” he said. “The Big Island, Puna District, and so on,” he said. “It’s everywhere — it’s in Honolulu, it’s probably within 300 yards of where we’re sitting right now.”
But a sense of crisis surrounding crystal meth has given way to a sense of complacency. Meth busts and stories of addiction are no longer splashed across the front page.
But for people like emergency room doctor Daniel Chang, it’s hard to ignore the problem when he sees so much of it. He says 45 patients a day come through the ER at Queens Hospital with some sort of meth-related complaint.
“We are ground zero for the methamphetamine impact in the emergency room. We see it every day,” said Chang. “It’s tough, because I don’t feel it’s getting as much traction as it really should be. My sense is that we’ve become habituated here in Hawaii because it’s just been around long enough. It’s been so prevalent that we’ve started to become used to the impacts of methamphetamine — which is really scary.”
In the next story in this series, we’ll look at how Hawaii became the landing place for crystal meth in the U.S and why it’s stayed here.
Readers and listeners who are interested in learning more about drug treatment and prevention in the islands can check out the relevant Hawaii Department of Health resource page.