Heroin, 'ice' arrests soar on Big Island
By Hugh Clark
Advertiser Big Island Bureau
HILO, Hawai'i Big Island police say arrests and drug seizures involving black-tar heroin and crystal methamphetamine are rising at alarming rates.
Police are also observing a corresponding escalation in violence, as drug dealers accumulate more sophisticated arsenals, said Detective Ernest Saldua of Kona.
"We used to see a rifle once in a while. Now they are packing automatic weapons and .357 magnums," said Saldua, who has spent 16 years investigating the drug scene in West Hawai'i.
Capt. James Day, head of the Hawai'i County Police Department's Criminal Investigation Division, launch-ed his career as a vice officer in the early 1970s. He considers the situation "much worse now. They are using drugs that are so much more addictive. And we have younger users."
Police officials held a news briefing yesterday to raise public awareness about the prevalence of heroin and crystal methamphetamine, also known as "ice," which have easily overtaken cocaine and marijuana as the county's top drug-enforcement concerns.
Police department statistics show a tenfold increase in the number of people arrested for heroin possession from 1997 to 2000. Crystal meth arrests were up 431 percent during the same period.
Some drug users are now combining heroin and "ice" to ease the effects of coming off a crystal meth high during what Detective Marshall Kanehailua called "the tweaking period before they crash."
That's when the users become anxious and are regarded as the most dangerous. Kanehailua said the abuse of crystal meth has contributed to shootings and hostage situations.
There also are health risks. Saldua said he knows of two deaths and three near-deaths in the past two years attributed to heroin overdoses.
Police also provided insight into how the Big Island drug trade works.
Black-tar heroin produced in Mexico, methamphetamine and cocaine are smuggled in by couriers on flights to Kona International Airport or via the mail or express delivery services. The methamphetamine is turned into "ice" in makeshift laboratories on the island, police said.
"Runners" can take in an estimated $20,000 to $30,000 a week selling the drugs on the street, officials said. The heroin is peddled in units of two-tenths of a gram that sell for $50 each. The runners have been known to keep the drugs in small balloon packets stowed in their mouths. That way, the substance can be swallowed in case a sale is interrupted by police.
Mayor Harry Kim, who declared a "war on ice" shortly after taking office in December, said yesterday the drug situation is "totally unacceptable." Kim said he is working with police and prosecutors to focus on ridding the island of crystal meth sales and manufacturing.
He said he was surprised during a series of community meetings when residents of the county's rural areas expressed strong concerns about drugs. Since then, he has met with law enforcement, education and health officials to discuss taking action.
Big Island drug seizures
Big Island drug arrests