The United Statesʻ deadly fentanyl epidemic came full force to the Big Island in 2021.
“It was like a tidal wave and hit us at one time,” Hawaiʻi Police Vice Lt. Edwin Buyten said. “And primarily, that’s what we’ve been doing ever since.”
Describing the Big Island as “one big port,” Buyten said drugs come via ship, parcels or people carrying it on their bodies — from places that include the West Coast, Washington and California. He said it’s a mix of cartel-related “narco-terrorism” and locals trying to make a profit, with one pill selling for $25.
To address this crisis, the Hawai’i Island Fentanyl Task Force, formed in 2021, focuses on prevention, treatment, recovery and county-wide collaborations to battle the issue locally. But the task force has been grossly underfunded.
While millions of dollars are coming down the pipeline to state and federal agencies, following an opioid settlement with pharmaceutical companies, the task force is mainly supported through volunteers.
It has received $13,000 in sponsorship funds from a recent summit in May, and in-kind services and personnel time from the Hawai‘i Island Community Health Center.
Dr. Kevin Kunz, an addiction specialist on the task force, said the state and the county are in the process of releasing the settlement money, but he has no idea when that will happen.
Meanwhile, the problem only is getting worse.
In July, Hawai’i Island police seized a record-breaking 6,367 fentanyl pills. In August, police recovered the biggest monthly amount of the drug found in West Hawai’i since the beginning of the year, and in June, a Big Island resident died from fentanyl poisoning at a hotel in Waikīkī.
“I think we’re putting a dent in it but it’s a big game of chess,” Buyten said.
Kunz said: “We can’t win this war. The only end to this is prevention.”
Buyten agrees prevention efforts would help.
“It takes community effort,” he said. “We can’t arrest our way out of this problem.”
Fentanyl is the leading cause of death in Americans between 18 and 45. It is a synthetic opioid that is up to 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine.
On the Big Island, the number of drug-related overdoses has doubled since 2019 to 40 last year, with one death occurring every 9 days. There were 34 drug-related overdoses in 2021.
The task force is planning to build a detox center in the future, for which they are seeking $1.4 million.
The task force, which runs under the nonprofit Big Island Substance Abuse Counsel, also hands out free Narcan, a nasal spray medication that can reverse the effects of overdose from opioids. It also is now available over-the-counter at local pharmacies.
The task force also works with local students to address the disease of addiction and raise awareness about the issue of drugs in Big Island communities.
Dr. Kimo Alameda, who helped form the task force, said he believes education is the key to early prevention and has led around 400 presentations throughout the years at schools, businesses, workplaces and churches to try to educate students and the community about the dangers of fentanyl.
“Addiction robs a person of everything that really matters to them: their family, their true friends, their jobs and sadly their lives,” he said. “Prevention education with culturally responsive presenters is the key to addressing drug experimentation before it becomes an addiction.”
“We can do our jobs and do them well and be good stewards but when you have community leaders, doctors, social workers and concerned citizens participating in the mission, then you can attack it at all different angles,” he said.
For fentanyl safety tips, visit this website.