The amount of heroin confiscated by police has increased nearly sevenfold since 2020, and the presence of the synthetic opioid additive fentanyl within recovered heroin and methamphetamine seems to be growing, according to statistics from Hawaiʻi Police Department.
Authorities are concerned over the increased recovery of heroin off Hawaiʻi Island streets and the rising number of fentanyl investigations and hope to engage the community in battling what appears to be an escalating opioid crisis.
“We want to educate them (the community) on everything,” said HPD’s Area II Vice Section Lt. Edwin Buyten.
After seeing a steep decline in the drug in 2020, recovering only 288.65 grams of heroin from January to October, HPD statistics show detectives confiscated 1,609.1 grams of the illicit drug as of last month. In October alone, HPD recovered 5.9 grams.
During the same timeframe in 2019, police recovered 1,417.08 grams of heroin. HPD’s Area I Vice Section Lt. Royce Serrao said there were large heroin seizures in both 2019 and 2021. He couldnʻt say why there were fewer recoveries in 2020.
Thereʻs no guarantee on what weʻll recover in these seizures,” Serrao said.
Serrao and Buyten said police are also recovering more fentanyl, although the amount is small relative to heroin.
Fentanyl, a pain medication, which can be prescribed legally but is sometimes illicitly used recreationally, is now seen in recoveries of not only heroin but with methamphetamine as well, Buyten said. Assistant Chief Samuel Jelsma said the police department doesn’t have accurate data on how much fentanyl Vice is recovering as the drug is “typically an additive to many drugs such as heroin and methamphetamine.”
Buyten said the fentanyl they’re recovering off the streets appears to be manufactured in labs in powder and pill form.
“It’s a Trojan horse, it’s mixed in other things,” Buyten said. “It’s scary.”
Buyten took over Kona’s Vice section in July. He confirmed they have active fentanyl investigations and detectives are looking into how the drug is coming to the Big Island.
“It’s new,” Buyten explained. “…Unfortunately, It’s extremely lethal and dangerous. A small amount of fentanyl goes a long, long way.”
“As fentanyl is becoming more widespread, we are focusing efforts to gather more accurate data on this currently, particularly in instances where pure fentanyl is being recovered,” Jelsma said.
Health clinics and treatment centers are also taking note of the increased indications of illicit fentanyl use.
Hannah Preston-Pita, CEO of Big Island Substance Abuse Council (BISAC) said they started questioning clients about five years ago about fentanyl during intake to their treatment facility. While methamphetamine is still the drug of choice for many, Preston-Pita said heroin is making a comeback.
“What I am hearing is an increase in fentanyl on the west side,” Preston-Pita told Big Island Now in November. “A lot of (new clients) will come into treatment with it (fentanyl) in their system.”
Through conversations with their current clients, Preston-Pita said people are also cutting fentanyl into meth.
“They’ll call it a bad batch if itʻ’s laced with fentanyl,” she explained.
Methamphetamine continues to be the most prevalent drug police are encountering on a daily basis, Buyten said.
So far this year, police have recovered 12,048.51 grams of meth. In October alone, detectives recovered 187.8 grams.
During the same timeframe in 2019, police recovered 8,301.15 grams of meth. In 2020, police recovered 15,537.17 grams during the same timeframe.
Cocaine confiscations have declined with 2,019.37 grams recovered year-to-date in 2021. During the COVID-19 pandemic, authorities saw a spike in the stimulant, recovering 3,377.7 grams in the first 10 months of 2020. Law enforcement confiscated 1,548.1 grams of cocaine in the same timeframe of 2019
Buyten said HPD also has a serious concern over the increased recovery of firearms. In October, one firearm was recovered with drugs.
Illegal guns began circulating into the community about 20 years, the lieutenant recalled from his own experience.
“When I was a younger Vice officer in the early 2000s you didn’t see that many firearms, now you’re seeing more and more firearms,” Buyten said, adding the frequency of illegal firearms recovered with illicit drugs is increasing.
In the past 10 months, 42 illegal weapons were seized along with drugs. This is a decline from 2019 where HPD statistics show 52 firearms confiscated with the recovery of drugs.
Outside of being found with drugs, illegal firearms on the island are on the rise. In October alone, 29 weapons were recovered.
From January to October, 292 guns were confiscated. From January to October in 2020, 227 were seized.
“In Vice Narcotics, it’s definitely our mission to investigate illegal firearms and use of illegal firearms,” Buyten said. “It is a responsibility for all of us who are sworn to use safety and keep an eye out for illegal firearms.”
The rise in fentanyl investigations has prompted HPD to offer specialized training to its Vice detectives. Assistant Chief Samuel Jelsma said officers are learning what the drug looks like, how it’s packaged are cautioned to treat anything that could possibly be fentanyl as the real thing until proven otherwise.
Vice officers have received specialized training on all types of narcotics identification and safety protocols to include fentanyl specifically.
Additionally, Vice officers attend patrol briefings to share information on the fentanyl trends and firsthand knowledge on recent recoveries.
Since beginning his leadership on Vice, Buyten has been looking for ways to engage the public and educate them about illegal substances, including fentanyl.
Because gathering is difficult due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Buyten is hoping to offer virtual presentations via web conferencing with community boards as well as partner with community policing to get educational materials out to the public.