Friday, September 12, 2003

Ice storm: Epidemic of the Islands

Members of the Pahoa Village Neighborhood Watch pause while patrolling an area of town that was a drug dealer hangout until recently. On patrol are Brian Jordan, left; his wife, Kim; Kimo Chow; Leslie Estet; Andy Aquino; and Rolande Paleka-Kennedy.

Pahoa works
to erase image
as an ‘ice’ haven

The area's naming as a Weed
and Seed site is in the works

PAHOA, Hawaii >> About 25 Pahoa residents were meeting with Mayor Harry Kim last year, planning how to force drug dealers out of town when one of the participants blurted out, "Look out the window."

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Across the town's narrow main street, a dealer and a customer were exchanging drugs and money, said gift shop attendant Malia Brown, who was sitting next to the mayor.

Within seconds a police car pulled alongside the drug deal, Brown said. The officer in the car waved to the dealer and customer and drove away, she said.

The mayor was speechless, Brown said.

Pahoa, the former sugar town in the Puna district south of Hilo, turned hippie haven in the 1970s, was becoming a crystal methamphetamine haven. And with "ice" came crime, including violent offenses, a new experience for the small town.

But the community is working hard to change.

"Puna is now saying no. We draw the line here," said Rene Siracusa, president of the community organization Malama O Puna.

In July, community leaders organized and won state backing to obtain federal Weed and Seed designation for Pahoa. The program of the U.S. Department of Justice provides money to law enforcement to "weed out" criminal activity and to social service agencies to "seed" community improvements.

The state has endorsed Pahoa to be the first neighbor island site to receive the designation. The final Weed and Seed application will go to the Justice Department in October, Siracusa said.

Federal approval would bring $175,000 a year for five years and open the door to other funding.

Former Puna Sugar Co. supervisor Hiroo Sato, who wrote a history called "Pahoa Yesterday," said the biggest change in the town's history was the closing of Puna Sugar in 1984.

Marijuana production filled the gap. "This town had a boom because of it," said Siracusa. "A lot of businesses that got started, got started on pot money."

"Puna got a reputation of being accepting of all lifestyles. With ice, Puna's not tolerant anymore," Siracusa said.

Billy Kenoi, Mayor Kim's drug coordinator, said ice is a problem everywhere on the Big Island, but Puna gets attention because of negative socioeconomic factors.

With about 50,000 house lots, most of them cheap, many consisting of raw jungle without electricity, telephones or decent roads, Puna is a focus of poverty.

LaMont Carroll, owner of the Pahoa Outpost Internet Cafe, remembers a description of Puna as "pakalolo (marijuana) farms, FBI fugitives and the un-bathed." His Internet business, with 17 computer terminals, is a success in part because some subdivisions still do not have electricity or phone service.

Generally, said Pahoa Natural Groceries manager Steve Sugar, "it's a very mellow, peaceful place."

But the reputation makes some outsiders fearful. When Carroll and his wife, Lesley, moved to a subdivision near Pahoa two years ago, at first he told his wife not to go into Pahoa unless he went with her.

Shop attendant Brown said tourists have said car rental companies told them not to come to Pahoa.

With drug dealers intimidating people on the street, the reputation was turning into a reality.

"I don't fear too many people," said drug outreach worker Emily Naeole. "I'm a tita (a tough local woman). I was raised here in Pahoa. But with this ice coming here, I have a little fear right at the edge of my heart."

On July 29 a masked man robbed the Natural Groceries store at gunpoint. Manager Sugar thought the man was on ice. "He was nervous and jumping around a little," Sugar said.

An armed robbery had never happened in Pahoa before, said history writer Sato. Most crimes occur in surrounding areas.

Two weeks before the store robbery, four teenagers and a 21-year-old burst into an isolated home in Kaohe Homesteads two miles above Pahoa around 1 a.m. Four had guns and one had a bow.

The woman who lives there with her husband told the Star-Bulletin she thinks the intruders were on ice. "They ran through the house. They threw the curtains for the closets open. They must have been whacked," she said.

They didn't want money. They demanded pornography and marijuana. The woman thinks they were so high on ice that they needed marijuana to come down.

One of the intruders eventually said to the others, "We're not going to hurt these people," and they left. Police caught them.

On the night of July 3, as residents were planning strategy to get a Weed and Seed program, a police officer who stopped a man for reckless driving got his arm caught in the suspect's car window. The officer was dragged 30 feet and passed the Weed and Seed meeting before freeing himself with only minor injuries. The suspect was caught.

"John," 37, a recovering ice user who asked that his real name not be used, grew up in Puna. His experience parallels the growth in ice use here.

In the mid-1980s he used cocaine, but ice was also around. In 1986 he started going to church and stayed clean. In 1995 he "went off track," began using ice heavily and ended up homeless.

Now at the Hui Hoola center in Puna, where treatment is based on Hawaiian cultural practices, John is studying agriculture and plans to be a dracaena farmer.

Dave Hoffeld, 29, a former ice dealer now in treatment at Hui Hoola, came from Kona in 1999. In four years in Puna, he has seen increased drug thefts, burglaries and robberies. "It's not a real major spike, but it's definitely up," he said.

He takes odd jobs and has "no clue at all" what he will do in the long run.

Hui Hoola is the only drug treatment facility in Puna. Last week, the facility, like similar programs nationwide, lost its federal funding, said administrator Kelaukila Carter. The federal money was three-quarters of Hui Hoola's operating budget.

The facility laid off six of its 10 employees but will continue with state funding, Carter said.

But positive things are also happening.

In June two reputed ice dealers were banned from town not because of drug convictions, but because of a civil "nuisance abatement" procedure in one case and a plea agreement regarding an assault charge in the other.

Two abandoned buildings used as drug houses were torn down, and a third is being restored by businesswoman Ophelia Kennealy-Rither.

Mexican restaurant owner Salvador Luquin is restoring the historic Akebono Theater next to his restaurant.

The county Transit Agency received $100,000 to increase the number of daily bus runs between Puna and Hilo to six from three. That will help addicts get to treatment in Hilo and help youths get to recreation centers.

County Councilman Gary Safarik has obtained $1.25 million to start a 10-year-old concept called "Pahoa Resource Park" in the middle of the town. It will include an outdoor amphitheater, an information kiosk, public restrooms, a farmer's market with permanent structures and a police substation.

"It's funded. It's not just a pipe dream," Safarik said.

Two years after Mayor Kim declared "war" on ice, he said he sees progress.

"I know the ice problem is not better after this two-year period, but efforts are under way to see if we can make it better. I'm very elated, even more so than I was hoping," he said.


‘Ice’ arrests are up
from 2 years ago

PAHOA, Hawaii >> Supporters of Weed and Seed designation for Pahoa picked the town, plus nearby Kaohe homesteads, because it's a "doable size," says community leader Rene Siracusa. The combined area has about 1,100 residents.

Statistics are generally more available for the surrounding district of Puna, an area almost as large as Oahu.

>> Arrests in Puna for crystal methamphetamine rose to 28 so far this year from one in 2001, police said. But amounts of ice seized varied tremendously: 4,660 grams (more than 10 pounds) in 2001, 121 grams (4.3 ounces) in 2002, 661 grams (more than 23 ounces) so far this year.

>> From 1980 to 2000, the population of Puna ballooned to 31,335 from 11,751.

>> The growth did not bring prosperity. The annual per capita income for the state is $21,888. For Puna it's $10,965. The state unemployment rate in 2002 was 4.3 percent. For the Pahoa-Kalapana census tract, it was 14.6 percent.

>> The teenage pregnancy rate (2000-2001) was 3.4 percent statewide but 7.3 percent in Puna. The rate of births to mothers with pre-existing medical conditions (1996-2001) was 31 percent statewide but 72 percent in Puna.

Star-Bulletin staff


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