A Hawaii legislative task force studying methamphetamine use in the state has come out with a comprehensive package of legislative proposals weighted heavily toward education, prevention and treatment. While the task force included some calls for tougher drug laws in its recommendations, it declined to endorse proposals sought by Gov. Linda Lingle (R) and the law enforcement community that would have heightened police powers at the expense of Hawaiians' privacy and civil liberties.
Hawaii has one of the nation's highest methamphetamine use rates. It is also unique in that most Hawaiian users favor "ice," a glassy, crystalline form of the drug suitable for smoking.
"We are going more toward treatment and early intervention," said state Senator Colleen Hanabusa (D), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and one of three co-chairs for the legislative ice task force. "The testimony we heard showed that if anything was working to reduce ice use in this state, it is educating the youth. The statistics show that use has declined among 6th to 12th graders because they're getting the message that ice is not only addictive, but a very bad drug," she told DRCNet.
"We do have some law enforcement legislative packages, but that approach cannot be the answer in and of itself," she added. "It won't work, and it's extremely expensive. You have to have prisons, and we're already shipping a good percentage of our prisoners out of state, almost 2,000 out of 5,000, and then we have to pay other states, Oklahoma or Texas, to watch our prisoners," she continued. "No, we have put a lot of money on early intervention, we'll be asking for funding for those sorts of programs, and for treatment."
At a time when state legislatures around the country are responding to methamphetamine use with such reflexive measures as increasing sentences for meth offenses, restricting the sale of legal products that can be used in meth manufacture, and heightening penalties for other meth-related offenses, such as stealing anhydrous ammonia, the Hawaii legislative task force's embrace of a public health approach to ice use and its attendant social consequences -- whether derived from prohibition or from the particular pharmacological effects of the drug itself -- is remarkable. And the task force is putting its money where its mouth is. Spending priorities for the $21.6 million dollar set of programs are as follows:
It's not all sweetness and light and fiscal responsibility, however. While it shot down the governor's wiretapping and "walk and talk" proposals, the task force did endorse stiffer sentences for drug traffickers, for harming children exposed to ice, operating ice labs near schools or public parks, and distributing drugs to pregnant women. The task force also recommended toughening the state's paraphernalia laws, more funding for drug dogs in the Department of Public Safety, and funds to the Office of Community Services to coordinate community, government, and law enforcement anti-ice efforts.
Reflexive "tough on crime" measures notwithstanding, drug reformers and researchers involved in the issue pronounced themselves generally satisfied. "It's actually a pretty decent set of recommendations," said Pam Lichty, head of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii. "While no one has seen the actual bills yet, by and large they are taking the public health approach. They are talking about spending a lot of money on treatment, prevention, and funding the diversion program for drug offenders," she told DRCNet. "And while there are some parts of the package that we don't like, the task force explicitly rejected changing the wiretapping laws. The law enforcement coalition really wants that, but the task force noted that they asked for more information from prosecutors about how they are hampered by current law, and they didn't get it."
"I was very, very pleased with the recommendations," said Alice Dickow of the Ice Treatment Project and principal investigator for the MATRIX study, an 18-month look at women and methamphetamine abuse. "The fact that they lead with the statement that it's a public health issue is heartening. It's a very enlightened and helpful approach. It also shows they listened, because they heard reams of testimony to that effect," she told DRCNet.
"I was concerned during this process that with two campaigns being waged -- the anti-crime law enforcement campaign and the treatment and prevention campaign -- that the public health message would be obscured in the furor over how best to crime-fight this," she added. "That didn't happen. And the amount the recommended indicated they were aware they couldn't use half-measures."
Ah, the money. Therein lies the rub. "There is no funding mechanism in this," said Lichty. "Tax increases will be hard to pass. They have suggested sin taxes, maybe on alcohol or tobacco, or tapping into one of the state funds, like the tobacco settlement fund or the hurricane relief fund. At the same time there is real public support for some of these measures, so this promises to be real interesting."
"We're not sure there is going to be support to raise any form of taxes, but that doesn't mean that we've ruled it out," said Sen. Hanabusa. "But we will leave those decisions to the Finance and Ways and Means committees," she said. "They need to find the ways and means to get this done."
While the task force was a bipartisan effort, that is likely to fade away in the heat of political combat. The process has already begun. The press conference announcing the task force's recommendations was a Democratic affair, and the task force's bills will be introduced as part of the Democratic legislative program. Gov. Lingle's initial response to the proposals was tart and snippy, saying they were way too expensive. The proposals do call for substantially more spending than Lingle's competing anti-ice legislative package. Lingle is also peeved because the task force rejected two key parts of her package, easing restrictions on wiretaps and allowing "walk and talks."
"We're hoping the governor's preliminary reaction isn't sustained and she will support this," said Hanabusa. "She has said she would look at this in more detail, and in order to get this through the system, she needs to be working with us," she said.
There are other concerns. "When we looked at data on the women we treated, the one thing that really stuck out was employment and education issues," said researcher Dickow. "I would really hate to see money for this initiative come at the expense of other social services. That would be robbing Peter to pay Paul."
Dickow also pointed to another, often overlooked issue. "There are talking about a lot of money, more than we've ever had in our system," she said. "Just throwing money at this without monitoring outcomes would be foolish. We need treatment providers to look at outcomes to ensure treatment and prevention is effective. I don't believe poor service is better than no service; there has to be scientific accountability."
"We are demanding accountability," said Hanabusa. "We have to have measurements of success. We are responsible to the taxpayers. We've been telling them we studied this, but for them to say okay, we also have to be accountable."
That would be great, said Dickow. "Hawaii is really poised to show the rest of the nation what works, what interventions work, what treatment programs work. A serious evaluation of efforts in Hawaii would be a service to the nation."
The legislature has 60 working days to figure it out. Expect results by mid-May or not at all this year.
The report of the Joint House-Senate
Task Force on Ice and Drug Abatement can be viewed at: