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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, January 25, 2004

Don't make us report 'ice epidemic' in 2010

On a June morning in 1988, Romel Castro, an 18-year-old 'Aiea High School student, smoked some crystal methamphetamine, as he did several times a day, and headed for summer school, according to trial testimony.

He was convinced his English teacher, Rosemary Stout, was going to fail him, and he needed to graduate.

By recess, Castro's rage at Stout was off the charts and, according to trial testimony, he pulled out a loaded .38-caliber handgun and shot the teacher in the chest. He later shot himself while driving along the Kamehameha Highway in a bungled suicide attempt.

The case of Castro, who was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole for attempted murder, was among the first high-profile ice-related crimes in the Islands. Awareness of the deadly impact of crystal meth was just emerging.

Hawai'i epidemic

While Hawai'i had largely been spared from the crack cocaine epidemic spreading across the Mainland, it was a pioneer in the art of smoking ice. So prevalent was this trend in 1989 that members of the National Institute on Drug Abuse came out to the Islands to study the "epidemic of crystal methamphetamine smoking."

Soon, the drug was showing up in victims of homicide, suicide and traffic fatalities. Hospitals saw a rise in "drug babies." A 1989 Advertiser report on crystal meth spurred dozens of calls to the Hawai'i Substance Abuse Information hotline.

Lawmakers responded with pledges to toughen anti-drug measures.

But where has it gotten us today?

Fifteen years later, ice maintains its grip on the Islands. Those drug babies are in the schools. Many are in need of special education or treatment for drug abuse, and others are in foster care.

Mostly, the effects of Hawai'i's protracted ice epidemic can be seen in our prisons and jails.

Prisons overflowing

In a four-part series, "Prisoners of Ice," Advertiser staff writer Johnny Brannon last week deftly demonstrated that responses to the crystal meth crisis back in the late 1980s and early 1990s have resulted in prisons overflowing with inmates.

Indeed, crowding is so bad that more than 1,300 Hawai'i inmates have been shipped to Mainland prisons. There, many form prison gangs to protect themselves. Once released, they return to Hawai'i, hardened, with new criminal skills.

For most prisoners, treatment isn't usually available until the end of their sentences, after they've already been shaped by hard time.

The administration of Gov. Linda Lingle and the Hawai'i Legislature have made the war on ice a top priority in their 2004 agenda. But if they don't strike the right balance between treatment and punishment, we'll be publishing another ice crisis series in another five or so years.

Let us be clear that addiction is not an excuse for crime. But locking up drug users and expecting them to emerge from prison rehabilitated without effective treatment programs is not going to change a thing.

Different reactions

If anything, the "Prisoners of Ice" series suggests that drug users respond to penalties and treatment in different ways. For some, early voluntary treatment is enough to set them straight. Others need the shock of incarceration and a comprehensive prison treatment program to get off the drugs.

Unfortunately, treatment is virtually a luxury. Act 161, a law requiring treatment rather than incarceration for first-time drug offenders, was never funded. Plus, few qualify for treatment because the very nature of addiction guarantees repeat offenses.

Meanwhile, we need to reverse a trend in female inmates, most of whom are nonviolent drug users who steal, write bad checks and prostitute themselves to support their habit. Locking them up and taking away their children is creating more societal problems in the long run.

Drugs in prison

And then there's the problem of drugs being smuggled into prison. Frequently, inmates test positive for ice, and some prison guards have been caught using and dealing it.

We can expect no changes on that front until there's an effort to raise the standards for prison jobs and pay accordingly.

What we have here is a public health crisis and a criminal justice problem. And if both sides don't get equal time and money, you can be sure to tune in for another "ice epidemic" series in 2010.

This is a problem we can throw money at if we can identify the target, and if we're all, more or less, on the same page.