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Hawaii News

Tests, arrests hint at rise in drug use

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Gerald Agustin, lab assistant with Diagnostic Laboratory Services, prepared to run a secondary pre-employment and workplace drug test Wednesday.
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Gerald Agustin, lab assistant with Diagnostic Laboratory Services, inspected a rack of test tubes Wednesday that will be used with pre-employment and workplace drug tests.
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A jump in methamphetamine-related arrests on Oahu and a significant increase in positive results in workplace drug tests statewide suggest a surge in meth use — even by people trying to find jobs in Hawaii’s struggling economy.

The state’s largest drug-testing firm, Diagnostic Laboratory Services, released data for the second quarter of 2010 showing a steady rise in positive tests for amphetamines this year — and a 70 percent increase compared with the second quarter of 2009, from 0.7 percent of people tested to 1.2 percent.

Perhaps the most alarming statistic is that 70 percent of the positive hits came from job seekers for pre-employment drug screening, said Carl Linden, Diagnostic Laboratory’s scientific director for toxicology. The rest were employees being randomly tested.

"’Ice’ hasn’t gone away," Linden said. "In fact, it looks like it’s resurfacing a little bit."

Honolulu police arrests also suggest an increase in methamphetamine-related crimes.

Arrests for methamphetamine-related offenses steadily dropped from 719 in 2005 to 277 through 2008, according to HPD arrest data.

After meth-related arrests rose to 289 last year, the number jumped to 170 for the first five months of 2010 — setting a pace that could exceed last year’s arrests.

In the courts, one of the latest, large-scale meth cases indicative of the longtime presence of the drug in the islands involved Carlos Martinez of Mexicali, Mexico. He was sentenced Wednesday in federal court in Honolulu to 16 years and four months for his role as the leader of a trafficking organization that shipped multiple pounds of methamphetamine from Mexico and California to Hawaii in 2005.

Martinez, 40, had fled to Canada but was extradited and prosecuted along with 11 others in his organization.

Diagnostic Laboratory’s competitor, Clinical Laboratories of Hawaii, also has seen an increase in amphetamine use in workplace drug testing, Matthew S. Respicio, Clinical Laboratories’ toxicology account representative, wrote in an e-mail. Respicio said he could not immediately provide specific data, but said the increase is not as large as that found by Diagnostic Laboratory.

Since crystal methamphetamine — amphetamine that is smoked — usually can be detected in the human body for one to four days, that means an increasing number of job candidates could not stay away from "ice" for even a week, Linden said.

"That’s alarming when you think about it," Linden said. "The ice use trend is definitely continuing. With most applicants aware there’s a high probability they’ll be drug-tested, it’s surprising that you get any positives. So actual usage is probably greater."

People who track ice use in the islands caution that data on arrests and positive drug tests can be influenced by a variety of factors, including increased law enforcement and street prices, which currently run between $1,800 to $3,000 per ounce on Oahu, according to police.

For instance, 40.9 percent of adults admitted to state-funded treatment centers cited crystal meth as their drug of choice in fiscal year 2007-08. The following fiscal year, the percentage jumped to 45.5 percent.

The increase may have been encouraged by a $2.75 million federal grant first awarded to Hawaii in 2008. The grant continues to help people get meth treatment and stay in treatment by providing them with transportation and housing services, said Keith Yamamoto, chief of the state Health Department’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Division.

But whatever forces are driving up meth numbers, the economy seems to be a likely factor.

"Whenever we have difficult economic times — higher unemployment, higher levels of housing foreclosures and people with less resources and people who have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet — that’s a lot of social pressure," Yamamoto said. "When people are under greater social pressures, one of the way people cope is through the use of alcohol and drugs. … This is a time when we need to increase services in the community because there are not as many resources available."

The most recent statistics — especially the workplace drug test data — come despite a tight job market, with Hawaii’s seasonally adjusted June unemployment rate of 6.3 percent, said Beth Busch, who produces the state’s largest job fairs.

It has always mystified Busch that job candidates would take pre-employment drug tests knowing they had smoked ice in the past few days.

"It’s not a secret how long it stays in your system, and it’s not a secret that you’re likely to be drug-tested," Busch said. "But there is clearly a lot of stress in this economy."

Most people who smoke the highly addictive ice simply cannot resist, even with a job at stake, said Cindy Adams, executive director of the Hawaii Meth Project.

"With so many people looking for jobs right now," she said, "there is a level of desperation, and people just can’t take themselves off of it."

So the Meth Project’s "Not Even Once" ad campaign to young people has even more significance in a staggering economy, Adams said.

"They’re the next group entering the work force, and we really need to reinforce prevention," she said.

Drug-using employees have higher rates of absenteeism and on-the-job accidents, which lead to additional costs for drug testing, productivity and insurance. But Hawaii employers realize that ice use exacts an even higher cost, said Jim Tollefson, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii.

"Crystal meth use is an ongoing concern of the business community that goes beyond dollars and cents," Tollefson said. "It affects the social fabric of the state, and it’s a sad commentary. We need to get our arms around it and turn it around."


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