Editor’s note: This is the second 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.
In 2004, Hawaii residents were introduced to Corey and Nickie, two dumpster-diving teens whose families were ravaged by crystal methamphetamine, drug abuse and poverty.
The two boys were featured in an hour-long documentary, Life or Meth: Hawaii’s Youth. It was simulcast on all major TV stations in the islands, as part of an unprecedented public awareness campaign to fight against a growing epidemic.
Find this four-episode podcast and radio series at hawaiipublicradio.org
At the time, Hawaii ranked first in the country for crystal methamphetamine use, and there had been several high-profile cases playing out in the news that highlighted just how deeply the drug had burrowed into the community.
Corey’s parents and siblings smoked meth in the house when he was a kid. He would often find himself awake at night with a contact high from the second-hand meth vapors, cleaning his room because he couldn’t sleep. The cupboards were bare of any food, and rats had taken over.
Nickie’s father had overdosed on heroin. His mother drank, popped pills and smoked crystal meth. She beat him as a child and, when he was older, she forced him to sell drugs to help feed her habits. He had been living on the streets since he was 11.
One of the most striking scenes in the film came when the two boys recreated a nightly ritual for Corey — digging through trash bins looking for food. From one dumpster, Corey pulled a Papa John’s pizza box that still had a few slices inside. Ants crawled on the pepperoni. The two boys brushed the insects off and took a bite.
“It’s still good,” Corey said. “Can’t go wrong.”
The documentary, along with its predecessor, Ice: Hawaii’s Crystal Meth Epidemic, are time capsules that show just how serious a problem meth had become since arriving in Hawaii during the 1980s.
The films were sponsored by some of the largest businesses and government organizations in the state, including the City & County of Honolulu, Matson Navigation, the Alexander & Baldwin Foundation, the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii, the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers and Kamehameha Schools.
Among those participating in the film were Gov. Linda Lingle, U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye, University of Hawaii head football coach June Jones and White House Drug Czar John Walters, all of whom acknowledged that Hawaii was in the midst of a public health crisis that was costing the state an estimated $250 million a year.
The message was clear: Hawaii needed to kick its meth habit, and it would take everyone working in unison to do it.
So what happened?
Twelve years later, meth is still the drug of choice on the islands. Year after year, the state has led the country in workplace meth use, with one 2011 study showing employees here used the drug at a rate four times the national average.
From 2013 to 2015, the Hawaii High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area reported that law enforcement agencies seized nearly 750 pounds of meth with an estimated street value of almost $12.5 million.
While those numbers pale in comparison to what’s nabbed at the U.S.-Mexico border, officials here say it’s a sizable amount given that only 1.4 million people live in Hawaii.
“Meth hasn’t gone away at all,” said Edgy Lee in an interview last week. Lee produced and directed both Ice and Life or Meth. “We’re still very much in touch with law enforcement on the issue and they just shake their head. And now heroin is on its way.”
When federal, state and local leaders decided to tackle Hawaii’s methamphetamine addiction in the early 2000s, the drug already had sunk its roots deep into local communities, from Maui and Lanai to the Big Island and Kauai.
Hawaii was the first place in U.S. to experience widespread use of crystal meth. Law enforcement officials said the drug first arrived here in the 1980s, from the Golden Triangle in Southeast Asia, and then gradually spread to the American West Coast before exploding east across the Rockies and into the Great Plains.
Now most of our meth comes from Mexico, after traveling through the mainland U.S. through cities such as Phoenix, Las Vegas, Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
State Circuit Court Judge Edward Kubo was the U.S. Attorney for Hawaii from 2001 to 2009. He helped spearhead the movement to end ice on the islands with a three-pronged strategy: Crack down on dealers, bolster rehabilitation and educate the island youth. He had the media’s attention, too.
Kubo, who is now the head of the state’s drug court, said the U.S. Attorney’s Office tried to promote every bust in an attempt to prove that action was indeed being taken and that officials were working to the keep the community safe. There were numerous stories in the press, including those that told of cartels on Kauai, teachers who moonlighted as dealers and meth labs in naval housing.
But as the years wore on, the zeal began to fade. Other issues took priority. For the feds, counterterrorism trumped drug interdiction. Mainland cities began seeing a resurgence of heroin and opioid abuse. And, on the local level, homelessness became the issue du jour.
“I think you can get fatigue as a community,” Kubo said. “Over the long-haul of 20 years or so, you become used to it, not that you’ll ever accept it. But I think our community is just so numb already. Every time you turn around somebody knows somebody in this state who uses drugs.”
That might be why, when Kauai police seized seven pounds of meth in March, it barely made a blip. Sure, the local TV stations and newspapers reported the seizure and arrest of the two men who were accused of bringing the drugs to the islands. But there was no public outcry or in-depth analysis. The news cycle spun on.
Politicians also seem to have lost interest. In 2014, most political candidates in Hawaii running for major offices avoided talking about illicit drugs such as meth, cocaine and heroin, and admitted the topic didn’t take up much space on their political platforms.
Carl Bergquist, executive director of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, said no one should be surprised that meth is no longer top of mind.
There are a lot of other distractions, including for his own agency, which most recently has turned its attention to medical cannabis, and on how best to address the impending opioid epidemic in a way that focuses more on rehabilitation and harm reduction, rather than punitive prison sentence.
But Berquist also said he sees Hawaii’s inability to tackle meth in a meaningful way as an indictment of past practices and current shortcomings, including a dearth of treatment facilities that leave many addicts without an option to get clean.
“Crystal meth is still a huge problem here; so the fact that decision-makers and the community haven’t resolved it kind of explains why there’s silence,” Bergquist said. “It’s a failure; so it’s not so surprising why it’s not being highlighted right now.”
Bergquist conceded that his agency — as well as others like it — also are to blame for allowing meth to continue its stranglehold on the islands. He said it might be time to restart the conversation about how best to combat meth abuse, and to modify the state’s approach to emulate best practices from other parts of the country.
One example he cited is a pre-booking pilot program in Seattle, Washington, that gives officers the discretion to direct low-level drug and prostitution offenders to treatment and counseling services rather than throwing them in jail. There’s also a need for more rehab facilities, something that requires the promise of more money from lawmakers.
“We just really need to be nimble and flexible,” Bergquist said, instead of falling into the same traps that have allowed meth to remain a scourge for nearly three decades. He said, it’s clear that an approach focused on tough sentencing and targeting low-level offenders hasn’t worked.
“There’s no magic bullet here, obviously. But much like how parts of the war on drugs that have failed, this part here in Hawaii has failed. … I think it’s time to try something new.”
In the next story in this series, we’ll tell the stories of three women who became meth users, and how they found their way out of the destructive spiral of addiction.
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.