Big Island winning meth ‘war’
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By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau
By Kevin Dayton
HILO, Hawai'i — It has been almost seven years since Big Island Mayor Harry Kim declared "war" on crystal methamphetamine, a pronouncement that helped launch a political movement that led county, state and federal governments to spend millions of dollars on anti-meth initiatives.
Much of that money was aimed at solving the problem on the Big Island, and the island's efforts are sometimes cited as a model for other communities. More than $9 million in federal funds alone was directed at the meth problem on that island.
Today police, prosecutors, drug treatment providers and others say meth use on the Big Island hasn't gone away, but significant progress has been made.
Police have made 895 meth-related arrests for possession, trafficking or paraphernalia this year, the highest number in the past five years, according to statistics provided by police Lt. Samuel Jelsma, head of the Hilo vice section.
However, Jelsma said that while arrests are up, the amounts of drugs seized by police has declined dramatically from four or five years ago, suggesting there is less meth circulating at street level.
If the price tag for that progress sounds expensive for a community of less than 175,000 people, that's because the problem was neglected for so long, said Billy Kenoi, Kim's executive assistant and the leader of the county-level effort to combat the ice problem.
When the money was divided up among enforcement, treatment and education programs as part of a comprehensive anti-drug strategy, "all of a sudden, you're scrambling for dollars," Kenoi said. "It seems like a lot, but you've got to remember what we're trying to accomplish."
Former U.S. Rep. Ed Case once remarked that the federal government was spending more per capita to combat meth in Hawai'i than it was offering to any other state in the nation, and the Big Island was the beneficiary of much of that federal spending.
Treatment programs were expanded across the island, and the size of the police vice division was more than doubled by creating five-member meth task forces for both East and West Hawai'i.
A new police lab was set up to more rapidly process drug cases, and Drug Court programs were established in Hilo and Kona where none had existed before.
Adolescent residential drug treatment programs for boys and girls were created from scratch on the Big Island, along with a new live-in program for people with the dual diagnoses of mental illness and addiction, and a new drug treatment aftercare program for Native Hawaiian men.
Hundreds of small grants were distributed for community-based projects designed to have an impact on the ice problem, with many thousands of dollars distributed for everything from culinary classes to workshops on how to make an 'ukulele, with each project required to include an anti-drug component.
That rush of activity has made a difference, observers said.
Police Capt. Marshall Kanehailua said the proof that progress has been made is that meth is no longer a hot political topic on the island.
"At one point, that was all you heard, everyone was on the bandwagon, ice was it, it was a topic of conversation no matter where you went," said Kanehailua, who headed the vice division's East Hawai'i Ice Task Force from 2003 to 2005. "Now, you don't hear it as much, and that's a good thing. Did we solve the problem? Absolutely not, but I think we've made headway in reducing the problem."
Gauging exactly how much has been accomplished is difficult because of the nature of some of the programs that were funded. Advocates point to programs and activities that were established with the money that flowed into the Big Island, but proving they were successful at stopping or preventing someone's ice use is more difficult.
Prevention and education programs in particular are designed to divert youths away from drugs, and it is impossible to accurately count how many youngsters never smoke ice because they were too engrossed in other activities such as a publicly funded basketball league.
The most obvious initiative that can claim tangible success is the law enforcement crackdown, which nearly everyone agrees had an impact.
Deputy County Prosecutor Jason Skier points to a 13-month investigation known as Operation Capsize that used federal wiretaps to build cases against three entrenched methamphetamine smuggling and distribution rings on the Big Island.
Police served 50 search warrants and made more than 50 arrests that resulted in 27 federal indictments during the operation in 2004 and 2005.
Kanehailua, who was deeply involved in the operation, said police seized 27 pounds of ice during Operation Capsize along with more than $1 million in cash, and police are still following threads from the investigation to make more drug cases.
Six to nine months after the raids from Operation Capsize, Skier said the price of methamphetamine on the Big Island had doubled, a sign that the drug was becoming more scarce.
Kanehailua believes even meth distributors who were not swept up in the operation are wondering whether police have identified them and are watching, creating an atmosphere that may have pressured some to get out of the ice business.
After the operation, calls to the "ice hotline" to report drug houses plummeted from 30 to 40 a month to almost zero, and Kanehailua said that success by Big Island police coincided with an apparent national drop in meth production that may have helped to suppress the local problem.
That doesn't mean meth use disappeared, however.
Kenoi, who has resigned from the Kim administration to run for Big Island mayor, has been an outspoken advocate for a strategy that involved more than a police crackdown.
The effort on the Big Island was designed to include drug treatment programs, anti-drug education and other prevention programs, and Kenoi said government could easily have spent five times what it did to cope with the meth problem.
If it costs $300 per day for an adolescent treatment bed, and perhaps 200 youths need that level of treatment each year, simply treating juveniles on ice can quickly consume millions of dollars, he said.
In fact, every drug treatment program on the island received money to increase capacity, and more money was spent to train and certify drug treatment counselors so the programs had the staff they needed to accept more clients, Kenoi said.
Marilyn McIntosh, director of behavioral health for Big Island Substance Abuse Council in West Hawai'i, said her own program has tripled in size, and "we see very few on the wait list."
"We're getting what we need. Of course we could always use more, but we're making a dent, and so you know that it's working," she said.
Meth admissions are still high, but many BISAC clients report they have been seeing fewer of their old drug-using friends on the street, with many of their old associates going into treatment, into jail or dying, McIntosh said.
"I think it's cut down. With everyone working toward a common goal, we're seeing less of it," she said.
In the area of prevention programs, "what we're doing is ensuring that we have a healthy, safe Hawai'i Island, and if we want to do that, yes, it's enforcement, yes, it's treatment, but most importantly it's focusing on our children," Kenoi said.
Meth money was used to help the Boys and Girls Club of the Big Island to open satellite facilities in rural areas such as Kea'au, Ka'u, Hamakua and Pahoa, and to finance programs in Kona as well, Kenoi said.
Hundreds of small grants under the "Healing Our Island" program have been distributed to grassroots organizations that include anti-drug components in their projects for youth. Again, observers believe progress is being made.
Jan Sears, co-coordinator with the North Hawaii Drug Free Coalition, said the tone and focus of gatherings and conferences among people working on the meth issue has shifted in recent years.
"We've come up with a shift in our basic focus to now look at how we can create and maintain healthy communities, and not so much how do we fight crystal methamphetamine," she said. "We've grown out of a one-drug issue to an overall community health issue."
Her organization has polled a sample of school children to test their self-reported drug usage and their attitudes about drugs, and "we are seeing differences. They're slight, but they are important ones," she said. "We are seeing significant change in how young people are looking at methamphetamine."
The students surveyed reported practically no ice use in the past 30 days in the 12th, 10th, eighth and sixth grades.
Some of the oldest students had tried the drug in the past, but fifth- and eighth-graders reported "zero use from the beginning, zero experimentation. I mean, they think of this as bad stuff, so all of the hype that we did five years go, all of the real heavy-duty stuff made its impact," Sears said.
Even older students reported a high level of anti-ice peer pressure, she said. The students surveyed reported that "they think everybody's going to think they're nuts if they use ice," Sears said. "The bottom line is we've got a lot of kids who are making really good decisions."
ALTERNATIVES TO DRUGS
The injection of federal funds has not dried up yet. Kenoi said U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawai'i, has secured $5 million in federal budget earmarks over the past three years to improve the Big Island's public transportation, an initiative Kenoi said is grounded in the idea that a better bus system will help prevent teen drug use.
Young people in rural areas of the Big Island still often have nothing constructive to do, and no transportation to get them to organized sports or other activities. Improved transportation meshes with what Kenoi calls the "big next step," which is to open up many more schools after regular hours in a partnership with the state Department of Education.
The idea is to make more school libraries, meeting rooms, computer labs and gyms available to youths who would otherwise be idle and unsupervised.
"We just need to provide resources and provide access to facilities, keep our gyms, parks and pools open in the evening hours so that there's no excuse for our kids not to be involved or engaged in positive activities," Kenoi said.
"We've got to stop making excuses for not helping our kids."
Big Island winning meth 'war'
Reach Kevin Dayton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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