As the fentanyl crisis spreads across Hawaii, Honolulu police and prevention groups are increasingly focusing on efforts to reduce adolescent drug use and limit the number of accidental overdoses and deaths caused by the synthetic opioid.

Gregory Tjapkes, executive director of the Coalition for a Drug-Free Hawaii, said although less than 5% of drug abuse by adolescents in the islands involves hard drugs such as fentanyl, it is critical to reach out to teens with a drug this dangerous. So while law enforcement targets the criminals importing and selling illegal drugs, social service groups are focused on preventing adolescent drug abuse before it starts.

“If youth are in poverty, homelessness, broken homes, sometimes they start tapping into substances,” Tjapkes said. “We work with them to try and make better decisions and cope with these situations.”

D.A.R.E. instructor police Cpl. Mik Del Prado teaches students how to make safe and responsible decisions in an effort to prevent drug use before it becomes a problem. Courtesy: DARE/2022

Now that most coronavirus pandemic restrictions have been lifted and access to public events, areas and schools has largely returned to normal, so has the ability to find and buy illegal drugs. Tjapkes said users who buy drugs from street dealers have no way of knowing what they are really getting.

According to statistics provided by Hawaii High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a grant-funded program of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the number of people who died as a result of taking fentanyl in the state has skyrocketed from nine deaths in 2018 to 48 deaths in 2021.

“We are trying to prevent them further harm, from overdosing,” Tjapkes said. “If they are expecting one drug but they get that drug plus fentanyl, those are the ones that send them over the edge and the accidental overdoses.”

Candy-Colored Pills

The Coalition For A Drug-Free Hawaii connects community groups with public and private service agencies statewide to build grassroots partnerships working to prevent drug usage and violence in communities.

It is one of several groups trying innovative ways to stem the flow of opioids being marketed to Hawaii’s young people. The organizations say they have found that the most effective way to engage adolescents is using small group sessions in safe settings, but the sudden increase in fentanyl being smuggled into the state raises pressure to increase the outreach.

“I believe grade school is an optimal time to give drug education because our youth are at risk.” — Gary Yabuta of the Hawaii High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area

Sam Aiona, executive director of Palama Settlement, said the social service agency recently received a $100,000 grant to implement a Prevention Plus Wellness program targeting fentanyl and other drug use, set to begin in November. The organization has a lot of ground to regain after cutting back on some services, including drug programs for youth, after the pandemic began in March 2020.

“Three years is a long time. Kids will forget,” Aiona said. “Some of our kids have come of age during Covid and it is those kids we really need to focus on. With this grant we are trying to find out and come up with solutions for the age-old question of why? Why even start drinking, smoking, taking drugs? For many youngsters in this community the answer is very different.”

In late August, the Drug Enforcement Administration issued a warning about a new trend of colorful fentanyl that looks like candy as drug cartels apparently try to sell the highly addictive and potentially deadly pills to young people.

Fentanyl is an opioid painkiller that is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the DEA. Just two milligrams of fentanyl, which is equal to 10 to 15 grains of table salt, is considered a lethal dose.

Resisting The Culture Of Drug Abuse

The Honolulu Police Department also deploys officers to schools in high-risk areas to educate children about the dangers of fentanyl and other drugs and to discourage their use.

Kalihi Uka Elementary School, which is in a designated high crime area, has officers from HPD’s D.A.R.E. program as well as from the crimefighting program known as Weed and Seed.

“Living in Kalihi, students are very aware of what happens in the neighborhood,” said the school’s principal, Derek Santos. “Within the community we are concerned about all types of drugs, smoking, vaping and alcohol.”

“With D.A.R.E. it helps them realize there are choices, and we need to be healthy and we need to make good choices for ourselves,” he added.

At the Oct. 5 Honolulu Police Commission meeting, Chairwoman Shannon Alivado thanked Chief Joe Logan for including fentanyl instruction in the D.A.R.E. curriculum. Alivado said she had gone through the program in elementary school and now her children are doing so.

“My daughter was watching the news and she saw those colorful pills and said they learned about that at school. Whether it is flavored vapes or drugs that look like candy, that is the reality right now,” Alivado said after the meeting. “The danger of our society now is they are exposed so much younger. How do we address that but by education?”

Preventing Deaths

Heather Lusk, executive director of the Hawaii Health and Harm Reduction Center, said fentanyl is a growing problem, but she noted the cost of the drug and said she doesn’t believe drug dealers are targeting children.

“That is not where the money is. I don’t think it is purposely using these colors to traffic to kids,” Lusk said. “These are counterfeit pills for people that are trying to buy a valium or an oxycodone and what they are getting instead are manufactured pills from Mexico that are taking advantage of the opioid dependency crisis that we have in our country.”

To stop the effects of an opioid overdose before a victim dies, the center provides the medication Naloxone for free and anonymously to anybody in Hawaii who wants it. More than 12,000 doses have already been distributed this year, more than double what was given out in 2021, Lusk said.

Drug-related deaths in Hawaii 2021 listed by type. Courtesy: Gary Yabuta

“We want people to know there is a tool that is very safe. You cannot get high from it. There are no side effects. But if someone is having an opioid overdose you could save their life,” Lusk said.

Adjusting To Needs

The D.A.R.E. program has been working since the mid-1980s to teach youth to make safe and responsible decisions. It’s designed to be flexible enough to adjust to contemporary needs as the use of drugs and other threats evolve.

“The D.A.R.E. program is more of a toolkit so the kids know how to get away from these challenging or peer pressure situations,” according to Maj. J Pedro of HPD’s Community Affairs Division.

Pedro said about 12,000 elementary and middle school students participate in the D.A.R.E. program on Oahu every year. Police corporals are placed in classrooms following two weeks of specialized training.

“Success comes with the number of kids we can get this lesson plan to,” Pedro said. “We plant the seeds in elementary and middle school. By the time they get to high school, when it becomes a real challenge, they have something to fall back on. We know they will get challenged and every one that makes a right decision is a victory for us.”

Emergency Medical Services personnel were called to a total of 132 fentanyl-related overdoses in the state between October 2021 and September 2022 — 36 in Hawaii County, 44 on Oahu, 28 on Maui, and 24 on Kauai, according to statistics from the Hawaii Department of Health.

Gary Yabuta, executive director of the Hawaii High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, said there were 107,000 drug-related deaths in the U.S. in 2021 and 75,000 of those were opioid related, most blamed on fentanyl.

Yabuta said fentanyl is smuggled to Hawaii from the West Coast at a huge profit for dealers who pay as little as $2 a pill and resell them for $15 to $17 each.

“I believe grade school is an optimal time to give drug education because our youth are at risk. They live in a different world today that spans globally. It’s all in their bedrooms with their doors closed and their parents outside of their rooms. They are chatting and getting false information. People are glamorizing drugs,” Yabuta said. “They are vulnerable now.”

But Tjapkes said the best way for parents to approach children they fear may be using drugs is to talk to them.

“They have got to have the frank conversations about these things,” he said. “Even if you have an awkward conversation and you feel like you didn’t do very well at it. That awkward conversation is better than no conversation at all.”

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