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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, March 27, 2003

Big Island anti-drug unit gaining ground

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

HILO, Hawai'i — House and Senate lawmakers have tentatively agreed to use money from the tobacco settlement fund to field a new strike force to raid drug houses and arrest dealers, but top law enforcement officials are opposing the bill.

"What we're saying is, the status quo is unacceptable," said Rep. Robert Herkes

Advertiser library photo • Sept. 23, 200

The measure would set aside $600,000 a year to hire on a contract basis retired law enforcement officials who would make up the strike force, said Rep. Robert Herkes, D-5th (Ka'u, S. Kona).

Herkes and House Judiciary Chairman Eric Hamakawa, D-3rd (Hilo, Kea'au, Mt. View), said they are disappointed that county police and the state attorney general's office have come out against the bill because the police contend it would duplicate existing efforts.

"What we're saying is, the status quo is unacceptable," Herkes said. "Whatever you're doing, it's not enough."

Lawmakers plan to draw $1.6 million a year from the tobacco settlement fund to field the "strike force" as well as pay for anti-drug education programs and treatment for crystal methamphetamine addicts, Herkes said.

The problem of crystal methamphetamine, or "ice," addiction has emerged as an enormous social and political issue on the Big Island, where the drug problem is particularly widespread in rural communities.

Big Island Mayor Harry Kim has declared a "war on ice," and is asking the Hawai'i County Council for money to establish a new drug enforcement unit within the police department to crack down on dealers.

In addition, federal officials are allocating about $5 million for Big Island treatment programs and related services.

According to the bill, methamphetamine addiction is to blame for an estimated 90 percent of the state's 2,300 confirmed cases of child abuse each year, and is a factor in 44 percent of all murders in Hawai'i.

Ice has become the drug of choice in many Hawai'i communities, and according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics, 40 percent of all people arrested by Honolulu police test positive for the drug, one of the highest rates in the country.

Herkes said the strike force would be used in troubled areas where police don't have the manpower to conduct raids.

The measure also would create a "coordinated council on drug control" within the state Department of Public Safety to review existing laws, propose changes and establish a permanent coordinating body to address the drug problem. The council also would allocate money for prevention programs for intermediate and high school students.

To pay for those efforts, money would be transferred each year from the tobacco settlement fund.

Hawai'i is one of 46 states that were part of a $206 billion agreement with tobacco companies in 1998 to settle claims over health-care costs for smokers. The state expects to receive about $1.3 billion from the settlement over 25 years, with most of that money earmarked for smoking prevention and programs to promote healthful lifestyles.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee is scheduled to announce its proposed amendments to the bill, House Bill 297, tomorrow.

Attorney General Mark Bennett could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Big Island Police Chief Lawrence Mahuna yesterday said the money for the strike force would be better spent on existing programs, such as the Hawai'i High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program or the statewide Narcotics Task Force.

"What we don't need is another bureaucracy," Mahuna said through police spokesman Buck Donham. "We could use the money better to fund existing law enforcement agencies to fight the problem."

Donham said Mahuna also questioned the wisdom of using what amounts to private investigators to tackle a law enforcement problem, something he said police are better able to handle.

Despite opposition from the attorney general's office, Herkes said he does not expect a veto by Gov. Linda Lingle.

"It doesn't cost her any money, it helps solve a problem," he said. "The people are on our side. I think the opposition will disintegrate once it passes both houses."

Reach Kevin Dayton at kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 935-3916.