Crystal Meth in Hawaii: Still On Ice

May 25, 2016

Credit Noah Matteucci

A week ago today, two men pleaded not guilty in the largest bust ever involving crystal methamphetamine on Kaua‘i. Police say they found seven pounds of meth—worth $1.6 million.

It’s the latest reminder that crystal methamphetamine remains a devastating problem around the state. 

Hawai‘i Public Radio and Honolulu Civil Beat are joining forces on a series of podcasts and radio reports on the topic. We’re calling it Hawai‘i’s New Ice Age: Crystal Meth in the Islands. Listen to the full episode by subscribing to our podcast on iTunes.

We start our radio reports today with HPR’s Molly Solomon as she looks at some of the damage the drug is inflicting across the islands.

About 10 years ago, Hannah Ii Epstein was an addict. She was 17 when she first turned to crystal meth.

“I was really addicted to just putting things up my nose,” said Epstein. “I found that meth was the thing that made me actually feel something.”

Epstein lives in Chicago now, but grew up surfing at Hale‘iwa Beach Park on the North Shore of O‘ahu. Now she’s clean—but she still remembers how crystal meth made her feel.

“I was lost; and it was feeling anything at that point made me feel alive.”

Hannah Ii-Epstein is a playwright and filmmaker who grew up on the North Shore of Oahu. She tried crystal meth for the first time when she was 17 but has been clean for about a decade.
Credit Hannah Ii-Epstein

Epstein is one of many people in Hawai‘i who have gotten caught up in the cycle of meth abuse. It’s a problem that’s plagued the state for decades and is apparent across the islands, disrupting lives, clogging courts, and filling prison cells.

“I definitely have a lot of experience with the crystal methamphetamine epidemic; I mean, it’s a big part of my job,” said Jim Rouse, a public defender on Maui for most of the last 20 years. When it comes to drug cases, he estimates at least 10 arrive on his desk every week that are meth related.

“Crystal meth touches —and this is a guess —at least 75 percent of the cases. Of the serious cases, not traffic,” Rouse explained. “Property crimes, obviously the drug crimes themselves, even violent crimes. There’s usually some meth component to it.”

Credit Honolulu Civil Beat

In 2014 the U.S. Sentencing Commission reported 26 percent of drug convictions nationwide involved methamphetamine. In Hawai‘i, the figure was 77 percent—nearly triple the national number.

Last year the gap was even wider. Nationally, methamphetamine played a role in 28.5 percent of drug convictions in federal court. In Hawai‘i, meth was part of nearly 94 percent of such cases.

Credit Honolulu Civil Beat

“If you really look, it’s everywhere,” said Gary Yabuta, the Executive Director of the Hawai‘i High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a federal law enforcement cooperation organization funded through the White House. Before that, he was the Chief of Maui Police for five years.

“My rural districts—Moloka‘i, Lāna‘i—they were so much infected on it and still are infected on it,” he said. “The Big Island, Puna District, and so on," he said. "It’s everywhere—it’s in Honolulu, it’s probably within 300 yards of where we’re sitting right now.”

Dr. Ronald Kuroda, Medical Director for Queens Medical Center, West Oahu, and Dr. Daniel Chang, an emergency room doctor at Queen's Hospital. Both say they see a constant stream of patients with meth-related complaints.
Credit Noe Tanigawa

But a sense of crisis surrounding crystal meth has given way to a sense of complacency. Meth busts and stories of addiction are no longer splashed across the front page.

But for people like emergency room doctor Daniel Chang, it’s hard to ignore the problem when he sees so much of it. He says 45 patients a day come through the ER at Queens Hospital with some sort of meth-related complaint.

“We are ground zero for the methamphetamine impact in the emergency room. We see it every day,” said Chang. “It’s tough because I don’t feel it’s getting as much traction as it really should be. My sense is that we’ve become habituated here in Hawai‘i because it’s just been around long enough. It’s been so prevalent that we’ve started to become used to the impacts of methamphetamine—which is really scary.”

Tomorrow we’ll look at how Hawai‘i became the landing place for crystal meth in the U.S and why it’s stayed here.