Hawaii’s Ice Epidemic: How Did We Get Here?

May 26, 2016

Credit Flickr / Klaus Stiefel

Crystal meth first came to Hawai‘i in the 1980s. Over the next several weeks, Hawaii Public Radio and Honolulu Civil Beat are doing a series of podcasts and radio reports called Hawai‘i’s New Ice Age: Crystal Meth in the Islands. Today, HPR’s Molly Solomon looks at how the drug first arrived in the islands.

Listen to the full episode by subscribing to our podcast on iTunes.

Judge Edward Kubo says the calls took a while to trickle in. It wasn’t until 2003 that he started hearing from people in Miami, Atlanta, even New York. They were all calling with the same question.

“What is this crystal methamphetamine thing?”

Kubo now runs drug court. But at the time he was the U.S. attorney in Hawai‘i. He says the state was the starting point for what became an epidemic across the country.

“We’re not proud of it,” he said. “But crystal methamphetamine is our gift to the nation. It started here.”

Credit Noah Matteucci

Kubo says crystal meth in Hawai‘i goes back to the 1980s. The drug first reached Hawaii’s shores through the Asian market before it took off on the mainland.

“And at that time meth was called the poor man’s cocaine. It was cheaper and yet you could get the same high,” Kubo explained. “And it exploded here. Meth became the worst thing that we ever saw.”

“We’ve been the pioneer of methamphetamine abuse before the mainland,” said Gary Yabuta, a veteran cop who was the Chief of Maui Police for five years. He’s now the Executive Director of the Hawai‘i High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a federal law enforcement group funded through the White House.

“We pretty much initiated the use of crystal methamphetamine, which is a smokable form. Before that, to get high on methamphetamine you had to use the liquid form and inject it with a hypodermic needle. Asian chemists were able to figure out a way to make it into a crystal form, a solid form to be smoked, and it became more popular,” said Yabuta. “That’s why Hawai‘i, by virtue of its distance to Asia, was probably the first state in the United States to experience crystal methamphetamine, or ice, as a drug of choice.”

Things got so bad that 12 years ago, Congress held hearings on the topic.

A House subcommittee called the sessions “The Poisoning of Paradise: Crystal Methamphetamine in Hawai‘i.” At the time Hawai‘i was No.1 per capita for crystal meth use in the country.

But it’s not like crystal meth ever left.

“Over the long haul of 20 years or so, you become used to it,” said Drug Court Judge Edward Kubo. He says the impact of crystal methamphetamine for decades has created community fatigue. “Not that you’ll ever accept it, but I think our community is just so numb already,” he said. “There’s a feeling of helplessness.”

One result: lingering health impacts on the community. Dr. Daniel Chang is an emergency room doctor at Queen’s Hospital. “This is the real impact that we’re seeing now in decade three and four of the methamphetamine epidemic that we have here in Hawai‘i,” Chang explained. “People have made it past their methamphetamine abuse, past their addiction, and they’re clean. But they’re living with the chronic impacts on their heart.”

And Dr. Chang says that leaves him — and doctors in a similar position on every island — with a question.

“Why is a 35-year old male coming in with the heart of an 80-year old,” asked Chang. “And you look into their chart and you realize it’s because they struggled with methamphetamine addiction in their teens or early twenties, but it has had long lasting impacts.”

Subscribe to our podcast “Hawai‘i’s New Ice Age: Crystal Meth in the Islands” here.