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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, September 14, 2003

Crystal meth Q&A

 •  Drug's youngest victims see families torn apart
 •  Trauma of ice both physical, emotional
Chart: The crystal methamphetamine crisis
Chart: Indicators of a worsening ice problem in Hawai'i
Chart: How methamphetamine works in the body

Advertiser Staff

Q: How new is the ice problem?

Methamphetamine use in Hawai'i is not a recent phenomenon — experts say they have heard accounts of people smoking methamphetamine on the Leeward Coast of O'ahu as early as the late 1970s — but the widespread public outcry and the political push to do something about it are new.

Alarm about rising popularity of smokable meth, also known as "batu" or "ice," circulated in law enforcement circles for many years, and accounts of the spread and effects of the drug popped up in media accounts throughout the 1990s.

Q: What has government done about this problem?

In 1996, state lawmakers established mandatory minimum prison terms for felony methamphetamine offenders, but by all accounts the problem got worse: By the late 1990s, the police, courts and social service agencies saw signs methamphetamine was more plentiful, the price was dropping, and use was dramatically increasing.

There were some efforts to seek more money for treatment programs, including a failed proposal in early 2000 by former Gov. Ben Cayetano to raise alcohol and tobacco taxes to pay for drug treatment. But the issue was not a central focus for most state and county leaders.

Q: What has happened more recently?

On the Big Island, Mayor Harry Kim declared "war" on ice shortly after taking office in late 2000. Kim said he was urged to act by rural residents who described the destructive effects of the drug in their communities, and social service providers who said they were overwhelmed by the problem.

In 2002, Republican Linda Lingle promised in her successful gubernatorial campaign to build two 500-bed "secure treatment facilities" where convicts would undergo drug treatment as they served their time.

Momentum continued to build behind the issue, with neighborhoods across the state holding town hall meetings to talk about meth-related crime and family members who have been lost in the epidemic. Communities have staged anti-drug sign-waving demonstrations that make it clear ordinary people are feeling this issue, and the political leaders are responding.

State lawmakers have formed a House-Senate joint committee that is holding hearings on the issue to draft a plan for the Legislature to consider next session.

For the Lingle administration, Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona has taken the lead on the issue with a statewide summit on ice and the drug problem starting tomorrow in Waikiki.

Q: How bad is the ice problem?

The National Drug Intelligence Center identifies methamphetamine as "the greatest drug threat to Hawai'i."

On the local level, Big Island Police Chief Lawrence Mahuna called ice use "worse than an epidemic" and warned: "We're going to be missing a generation of people if we don't take an active role in stemming the tide of this drug."

Statistics reported by the Treatment Episode System show treatment program admissions for methamphetamine abuse nearly doubled from 1994 to 1998, and the state Department of Health's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Division (ADAD) reported last month that annual treatment admissions for ice addiction nearly doubled again from 1998 to 2002.

For the first time last year, more people admitted to Hawai'i's publicly-funded drug treatment programs said their primary drug was methamphetamine than said their primary drug was alcohol, ADAD reports.

Ice also figures prominently into Hawai'i's crime statistics. During the first nine months of 2002, the Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring Program reports 44.8 percent of male arrestees in Honolulu tested positive for crystal meth, compared with 38.1 percent in 2001.

Q: How is ice transported?

There have been seizures of methamphetamine intercepted in overnight-type packages shipped from the Mainland, and meth is also often imported by concealing relatively small quantities on the bodies or in the luggage of travelers arriving from the Mainland.

U.S. Attorney Ed Kubo said authorities have even received reports of methamphetamine being smuggled into the state in hand-carried ice coolers.

In other cases methamphetamine has been found hidden among household or other goods shipped from the Mainland.

To help plug the drug pipeline, Kubo is urging an amendment to the state constitution to allow authorities to resume their "walk-and-talk" program, where narcotics investigators questioned arriving passengers who fit a profile of drug smugglers.

The state Supreme Court ruled in 1992 the walk-and-talk program was a violation of the state constitution.

Q: Where does methamphetamine come from?

Meth was initially imported from Asia years ago, but smugglers are seeking safer routes, according to Chris Tolley, special agent and public information officer for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration in Honolulu. More recently, ice has been brought in from California and Mexico.

Hawai'i is not a big "production state," and methamphetamine is not generally manufactured here, Tolley said. The meth labs that have been discovered in Hawai'i are usually set up to process the drug from its powder form to the crystal form, which is preferred locally for smoking, Tolley said.

One reason that large-scale manufacturing operations are rare here may be that aerial operations to eradicate marijuana have a side benefit of giving narcotics agents an opportunity to look for tell-tale signs of manufacturing labs, he said.

It may also be that the close proximity of many neighborhoods in Hawai'i present fewer opportunities for manufacturing labs to operate undetected, he said.

Q: Why is this such a big problem here and nowhere else?

A: Many other communities have serious problems with methamphetamine. For example, that same study that found almost 45 percent of Honolulu's male arrestees tested positive for meth also found that 33.5 percent of the male arrestees in Sacramento and 31.7 percent in San Diego tested positive during the same period last year.

Missouri, Colorado and Illinois each passed laws this year to crack down on meth manufacturing, and Missouri has a law restricting access to the ingredients used to make methamphetamine.

What is different about Hawai'i, Tolley said, is people generally smoke the drug here, while they are more inclined to snort or inject it elsewhere.

Police Chief Mahuna said he believes the breakthrough in the popularity of methamphetamine in Hawai'i came when it was refined into its crystal, smokable form. Hawai'i drug users seem repulsed by the idea of injecting drugs, but more comfortable with substances such as marijuana that can be smoked, Mahuna said.

Similarly, heroin never really caught on in Hawai'i when it was mostly available as "China white," a powered form of the drug that was injectable. But heroin use has increased since smokable black tar heroin became available, Mahuna said.

Q: Is it true that marijuana eradication caused the current popularity of ice?

This is an often-heard argument in rural Big Island communities where eradication, with its intrusive helicopter noise, is unpopular among many residents.

Marijuana advocates such as Roger Christie contend ice began its rise in Hawai'i in the late 1980s and early 1990s, just when Operation Wipeout dramatically expanded the law enforcement attack on illegal marijuana cultivation.

Christie, who founded The Hawaii Cannabis Ministry that promotes marijuana use as a religious sacrament, acknowledges he has no proof eradication caused the rising popularity of ice, but points to a 1994 study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse that found an eradication-ice link.

That study was based on interviews with methamphetamine users, and found users reported eradication had increased the price of marijuana. The users said they then tried ice, which was available.

The study concluded ice increased in popularity partly because of eradication, and partly because of an aggressive marketing campaign by meth distributors.

The DEA's Tolley and many other law enforcement officials don't buy the ice-eradication connection. They often describe marijuana as a "gateway" drug that leads to harder drug use, since methamphetamine users almost always report they used marijuana before they used ice.

Tolley also notes many drug users today are "polydrug users," meaning they use a number of different drugs in various combinations.

Errol Yudko, visiting assistant professor of psychology at the University of Hawai'i at Hilo and co-author of a new book on methamphetamine, said substance abuse prevention and treatment providers didn't see any reduction in marijuana use because of eradication. What they saw was an increase in methamphetamine use, he said.

Underlying the supposed ice-eradication connection is the idea that many people are going to use drugs no matter what and limiting availability of one drug simply steers people to another.

That argument has its proponents, including Yudko. Yudko contends drug abuse "is a symptom of something dysfunctional in our communities. We need to identify what that dysfunction is in order to correct it."

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