Crack cocaine seizures rise in Hawaii
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By Peter Boylan
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Peter Boylan
The amount of crack cocaine seized in Hawai'i this year has far surpassed totals for the previous three years, a trend law officials attribute to heavy enforcement pressure on crystal methamphetamine operations, crack's relatively low cost and other factors.
Through September, authorities seized 671 grams of crack, compared with 442 grams in 2006. In 2005, the haul was 47.91 grams, and 159.2 grams were seized in 2004, according to statistics released by a state, county and federal drug task force.
"We have been noticing the resurgence of both powder cocaine and crack cocaine to our Islands. Virtually all of these drug-trafficking groups who were bringing in crystal meth are also either now bringing in both ice and coke, or have switched over now to bringing in only cocaine," said U.S. attorney Ed Kubo.
"This trend is due to several factors, the first being our efforts against 'ice' are aggressive and continue to be so successful that there is a concern by criminals about dealing in ice and getting long prison sentences."
Another factor is an "ice" shortage, Kubo said. "Dealers are aware that many users of ice will also be willing to use cocaine when there is a shortage of ice," he said.
In addition to an increase in crack, authorities also are seeing more powdered cocaine.
Through September, agents have seized roughly 49 pounds of cocaine, crack's main ingredient, compared with 78 pounds in 2006, 26 pounds in 2005 and 38 pounds in 2004.
Cocaine arrests in Honolulu hit a five-year high last year, when Honolulu police made more than 200 cocaine arrests, compared with 135 in all of 2005 and 214 in all of 2004. This year's arrests were not available.
By comparison, crystal meth-amphetamine seizures have tapered off, with agents confiscating 111 pounds of ice through September, compared with 179 pounds last year, 265 pounds in 2005 and 226 pounds in 2004.
Other statistics cited by law enforcement include a reduction in the number of meth labs discovered in the state, which decreased from 17 in 2005 to two this year.
The figures are from the Hawaii High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a task force consisting of state, county, and federal law enforcement agencies.
In addition, "ice" use in the workplace has dropped by 25 percent in the third quarter of this year, according to statistics gathered for the state by Diagnostic Laboratory Services, the state's largest drug-testing company.
MORE SEEKING HELP
Another cocaine indicator is the number of adults entering state-funded drug treatment programs seeking help for cocaine and crack addiction, a number that increased last year for the first time in five years.
There were 370 adults who sought such treatment in fiscal year 2007, compared with 316 in 2006, 338 in 2005, 385 in 2004 and 392 in 2003.
By comparison, 3,270 adults received treatment for crystal methamphetamine addiction in fiscal year 2007, compared with 3,363 in 2006, 3,538 in 2005, 3,136 in 2004 and 3,013 in 2003.
The Salvation Army, which runs a substance abuse treatment program for longtime users, many of whom ended up in the criminal justice system, has seen its percentage of admitted methamphetamine addicts decline from 78 percent in 2005 to 73 percent last year and 72 percent so far this year.
"We've seen a leveling off and slight decrease in methamphetamine and a small increase in crack cocaine," said Larry Williams, executive director of Addiction Treatment Services at The Salvation Army. "I expected to see a significant increase in crack cocaine but it hasn't happened yet.
"What we see is not necessarily a reflection of what is out there on the street. We see a lot of people who have been addicted for quite a few years so there is usually a lag between us and what law enforcement sees."
Crack cocaine, a form of cocaine base, is derived from powdered cocaine, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Powdered cocaine is dissolved in a solution of sodium bicarbonate and water that is boiled, and a solid substance separates from the boiling mixture. This solid substance, crack, is removed and allowed to dry.
The crack cocaine is then broken or cut into "rocks," each typically weighing from one-tenth to one-half of a gram. One gram of pure powder cocaine will convert to approximately 0.89 grams of crack cocaine.
The current influx of cocaine and crystal methamphetamine is coming to Hawai'i primarily from San Diego and Sacramento, Calif., according to the DEA.
"You still have the flow of crystal methamphetamine but now we are seeing a cocaine flow," said Anthony D. Williams, assistant special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Honolulu district office. "It's the same distribution networks, via parcel or human body carriers, and at this point, our issue is the dope coming in from the West Coast. Our focus remains the distribution networks and the suppliers."
Another factor behind the increased supply of cocaine could be that federal penalties for cocaine possession are far less stringent than those that apply to crystal methamphetamine. Users and dealers may be turning to crack as a way to dodge stiffer sentences, said Janet L. Kamerman, special agent in charge of the FBI's Honolulu division.
"Recently, we've seen cocaine and crack sales increasing in Hawai'i. It's possible that drug dealers and users are turning to drugs they think are less likely to attract law enforcement attention," Kamerman said. "While the sentencing guidelines for distributing cocaine are less severe than the guidelines for crystal methamphetamine trafficking, the federal punishment for crack and ice possession is similar, so there's no benefit for the dealers in terms of reduced penalties.
"At any rate," she said, "we will continue to work with our local and federal law enforcement partners to identify and arrest those people responsible for poisoning Hawai'i's neighborhoods by pushing illegal drugs."
Ronald F. Becker, an attorney and director of the criminal justice program at Chaminade University, said there are societal reasons for crack's resurgence.
"Methamphetamine and crack cocaine are the preferred drug amongst the depressed, dispossessed and self-destructive poor. The purity of crack cocaine is very close to 100 percent, but yet costs less than does powder cocaine, which is only at best around 5 percent cocaine and the rest mannitol (baby laxative)," Becker said.
"Smokable drugs provide a euphoric relief ... (that) comes on quicker, is more intense with a heightened sense of well-being and the feeling of being in control, which for many of these people is absent in their worlds."
Reach Peter Boylan at email@example.com.
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