Crystal meth arrests in Honolulu decline 30% since peak in 2005
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
Honolulu police say crystal meth arrests are down by about 60 percent and that seizures of ice statewide have dropped by 30 percent since 2005, when the state's ice problem was among the worst in the nation.
Crystal meth remains the single biggest drug problem in the state, authorities say, but the decline in arrests and seizures signals dramatic improvement in a scourge that drove up the crime rate and whose toll on hundreds of residents — from victims of drug-related crime to users trying to get clean — is still being felt.
The good news on meth, though, is somewhat tempered by an apparent increase in cocaine distribution — which some officials worry could spur more violent crimes.
In late March, a turf war over the distribution of cocaine spilled onto the streets of Chinatown, when rival gang members allegedly gunned down a 35-year-old man. A week later, a group of men stabbed a man and beat up his female acquaintance — just yards from where the shooting occurred — apparently in retaliation for the killing.
Local and federal authorities say cocaine trafficking appears to be booming because powder cocaine is less expensive than crystal meth and, in some cases, more readily available. Last year, about 66 pounds of cocaine were seized statewide — an increase of about 30 percent from 2007. By comparison, 26 pounds of cocaine were seized in 2005.
"Cocaine is commonly 'substituted' for crystal meth when meth is not available," Maj. Susan Dowsett, head of the Honolulu police Narcotics/Vice Division, said in an e-mail. "The price of crystal meth or 'ice' is usually higher than the price of powder cocaine. HPD does not keep 'usage' stats, but we have had an increase in cocaine seizures."
In 2008, Honolulu police seized about 31 pounds of cocaine.
From January to April of this year, HPD seized about five pounds.
A recently completed 2010 Hawai'i High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area threat assessment and strategy report notes that "powder cocaine is abundant ... in the region, but to a lesser extent than crystal methamphetamine." It also calls the Chinatown shooting — in which the man was gunned down in a "hail of 18 gunshots" — an example of how turf wars over drug distribution can explode in violence. Two men, allegedly members of a San Francisco gang, were charged in connection with the shooting.
The violence spurred Honolulu police to increase their presence in Chinatown, something that residents say has gradually helped ease many of the fears they had in the wake of the shooting. Frank Lavoie, chairman of the Downtown Neighborhood Board, said residents feel much safer since police increased patrols — and undercover operations — to largely target the drug trade.
"People are pretty satisfied," he said. "The violence is down, people feel safer."
But Lavoie added that residents are still spotting problems, including blatant drug deals.
"There's still complaints, obviously," he said.
ICE STILL TOP OF LIST
Despite the increased concerns over cocaine distribution, Honolulu police and other law enforcement agencies say crystal meth trafficking remains their biggest concern. And it still accounts for most drug arrests and drug-related violence in the Islands.
Last year, 191 pounds of crystal meth were seized statewide — an increase of 45 pounds from 2007 that's largely attributed to a 50-pound seizure at Honolulu Airport in February 2008.
The drugs seized at the airport were worth about $1.5 million and represented the largest parcel seizure of crystal meth in Hawai'i in more than two decades. Crystal meth seizures, though up in 2008 compared with the year before, have declined significantly since a peak in 2005. That year, about 265 pounds of crystal meth were seized.
Meanwhile, Honolulu police say arrests for crystal meth are down, too.
In 2005, there were 719 HPD drug arrests for crystal meth. In 2008, there were 277.
There were 128 crystal meth arrests from January to April 2009.
Numbers of those seeking treatment for crystal meth addiction are another indicator that law enforcement is making headway in getting the drug off the streets. In fiscal year 2008, 2,967 adults sought treatment for crystal meth addiction statewide, compared with 3,538 adults in fiscal year 2005, according the state Alcohol and Drug Abuse Division.
Larry D. Burnett, director of the Hawai'i High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, a partnership of federal, state and county law-enforcement agencies, said the declining numbers for crystal meth are attributable to increased law enforcement efforts and more work to raise awareness of the drug and get users into effective treatment programs.
"Through a lot of hard work, we're holding the tide," Burnett said. He added, "I also don't think the public should take their thumb off the problem."
Burnett said the Hawai'i High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program has focused much of its efforts on going after the supply of crystal meth in the Islands — largely by attempting to disrupt or dismantle drug trafficking organizations.
Last year, Hawai'i High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area agencies identified 75 drug trafficking or money-laundering organizations operating in the Islands, about 41 of which, they said, were either dismantled or disrupted. Ten of the 75 were operating internationally, 36 were multistate and the rest were considered local.
Authorities say Mexican drug trafficking organizations are responsible for the majority of drug distribution in the state.
Disrupting the drug trade has real-life effects for just about everybody because a smaller supply of drugs often translates into fewer drug-related crimes, including property crimes. Statewide, the number of meth-related "critical events" that involved methamphetamine continues to follow a downward trend, from 1,773 in 2005 to 887 in 2008, according to the National Drug Intelligence Center. A "critical event" is anything that requires law enforcement to "conduct a proactive investigation."
Meanwhile, Burnett said he doesn't believe the economic downturn will necessarily increase the number of drug-related property crimes in the state.
Property crimes usually go up during tough economic times.
But Burnett noted that much of that increase is often because people are looking for money to live on — not to buy drugs.