HONOLULU (KHON2) — The number of drug overdoses in Hawaii is climbing and reached a five-year high in 2020, according to the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.
A total of 243 of Hawaii’s 262 drug-related deaths in 2020 were accidental.
Total overdoses were up from 265 in 2019 and 226 in 2018.
The increase is occurring as an extremely dangerous opioid continues to make its way across the nation and is beginning to encroach on Hawaii’s shores.
Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, has accounted for a 55% increase in overdose deaths in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
The drug is 50-100 times more potent than morphine and 25-40 times more potent than heroin.
According to officials, it is being made and distributed by Mexican cartels and sold as counterfeit Oxycodone pills.
“Counterfeit oxycodone pills look just like real oxycodone pills however they’re being manufactured and produced in Mexico in laboratories where there’s no product oversight and regulation. So you have no idea what’s being put into these pills,” Drug Enforcement Agency assistant special agent in charge Leslie Tomaich said.
The Maui Police Department, Honolulu Police Department and the Drug Enforcement Agency say these pills are becoming more prevalent in Hawaii.
“I don’t want to say that the flood gates have opened but they’re far more common,” HIDTA Drug Intelligence Officer Rico Witt said. “If I have somebody that’s used to taking a real oxycodone and they take one that’s laced with fentanyl that has a bit more than they need, guess what’s going to happen to them?”
In October 2020, Maui Police reported 500 fentanyl pills unaccounted for after a drug bust on the Valley Isle.
MPD tells KHON2 that the investigation is still active.
“The Maui Police Department has seen an increase in counterfeit oxycodone pills containing fentanyl. The counterfeit pills appear the same as prescribed pharmaceutical oxycodone pills, in color and score marks on both sides; however, the pill’s active ingredient is fentanyl.
“Reports of users who obtained the counterfeit pills illegally advise that after ingesting, extreme nausea resulted and report that the effects are nothing like the legally prescribed oxycodone pills,” MPD said.
The DEA is working on education with community groups in what it calls a two-pronged approach.
“On the enforcement side which is our primary mission, is to target and arrest for prosecution those who are distributing it on the streets to lower the supply of it,” Tomaich said.
So far, the drug has not overtaken Hawaii like it has many western states. Methamphetamine overdoses currently account for 197 of the 266 total in the state.
“We can’t be patting ourselves on the back because we don’t have an opiod epidemic yet, HIDTA Director Gary Yabuta said. “We have a methamphetamine epidemic, ice, batu, and it’s been here for 30 years,”
Witt and Yabuta warn to always be careful with prescribed opioid medications because that is how many addictions begin. When prescriptions run out, many who are addicted turn to counterfeit pills.
“I would suggest anyone they really look through these and really educate themselves if they’re in need of pain management to find other methods of opiods,” Witt said.
If you or your loved ones are in need of help with opioid addiction, the Hawaii Opioid Initiative has a strategic plan for you.