Crystal Meth in Hawaii: Demand, Supply and Local Culture

Jun 1, 2016

Photos and pamphlets from the Hawaii Meth Project, a nonprofit organization aimed at reducing methamphetamine use.
Credit Noe Tanigawa

Over the next several weeks, Hawaii Public Radio and Honolulu Civil Beat are doing a series of podcasts and radio reports we’re calling Hawai‘i’s New Ice Age: Crystal Meth in the Islands. HPR’s Molly Solomon takes a closer look at how and why crystal meth has become embedded in Hawai‘i’s local culture.

"This is a totally violent crowd, this is our drug population," said Justin Philips as he walked along South King Street past Old Stadium Park. He’s the Homeless Outreach Field Manager for the Institute for Human Services, the largest homeless shelter provider in the state.

Phillips sees different drugs, depending on the neighborhood he’s in: crack-cocaine in Chinatown, opiates at Fort Street Mall. Where we are today, Mō‘ili‘‘ili, meth is the drug of choice. "Meth is horrible out here," said Phillips. "Usually they're agitated, sometimes there's a conspiracy going on."

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 it’s not just the homeless that are hooked on crystal meth. Queens Emergency Room physician Dr. Daniel Chang says that belief is not only a cliche—it’s also wrong.

"You have this spectrum. It's not just drug abusers, it's not just people who are homeless," said Chang. "In that sense, methamphetamine abuse is a different beast. That's why I think it really has burrowed it's way into the fabric of our community."

Chang believes Hawai‘i’s ice problem isn’t going away anytime soon and it fits well into the local culture. It also makes sense for a lot of people from a practical standpoint, says Alan Johnson, CEO of the recovery center Hina Mauka.

"We are a population where we have two jobs and people are really working hard. We have a lot of single parent families. It does give you energy and it does help you," Johnson explained. "Some people are using meth at first to manage their lives."

Credit Noah Matteucci

"For some reason in Hawaii because of our culture, meth is appealing," said Gary Yabuta, who heads the Hawai‘i High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a law enforcement group funded through the White House.
"It's appealing to teachers, prosecutors, cops. I've fired cops because of methamphetamine use that was found in their systems," Yabuta said. "A deputy prosecutor from the city and county of Honolulu that was unbelievably good succumbed to methamphetamine. Teachers, counselors—the stories are everywhere."

Former addict Georgianna DeCosta worked with the Hawaii Meth Project for several years. She now uses her personal story to warn people about the dangers of crystal meth.
Credit Georgianna DeCosta

One story comes from Georgianna DeCosta, who was with Hawai‘i Meth Project for several years. At the height of her addiction, she was busted and locked up at OCCC, while five months pregnant. Now she uses her personal story to warn people about the dangers of crystal meth.

"Meth changes people in a different way," said DeCosta. "It really does destroy people's mind, body and soul. And I mean that in the deepest depths of the person's being. No other drug does that."