Drug-related deaths in Honolulu hit a 5-year high in 2020

HONOLULU — Authorities have reported about 200 drug-related deaths last year in Honolulu, a five-year high fueled by methamphetamine overdoses.

The Honolulu medical examiner’s office said there were 197 deaths in 2020 compared to 191 in 2019 and 157 in 2018, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported Saturday. Methamphetamine was the cause of 148 of the deaths last year.

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The average age of people who died from drug overdoses was 51, officials said. The youngest person who died was 15 — the only teen death — and the oldest was 98.

“A lot of methamphetamine comes from Mexico and that slowed down for some time,” said Honolulu Police Department Maj. Phillip Johnson, head of the department’s narcotics division. “Those who did have drugs on the ground, the price was quite high and we were not seeing a lot coming in like we normally did. After we started seeing toilet paper returning to the shelves, we saw the drugs come back to the streets.”

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents and Honolulu police officers are also finding fentanyl in counterfeit oxycodone pills manufactured in Mexico and transported to Hawaii from California.

Fentanyl is a potent drug that can become fatal with as little as 2 milligrams, health officials said. Anyone who is exposed to the drug can experience breathing effects at a much lower dosage than a usual medical dose.

Leslie Tomaich, a 23-year veteran agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration, said agents have noted an increase in fentanyl seizures and have already seized more of the drug this year than the entire amount confiscated in 2020.

Officials said agents have recovered 6.6 pounds of fentanyl powder and 1,233 tablets so far this year compared to the 9.7 ounces of powder and about 1,700 tablets in 2020.

Despite the rise, methamphetamine remains the largest drug threat in Hawaii, authorities said.

“Meth has always been our main threat out here,” Tomaich said. “The prices increased (during the lockdown). The demand was still there and people were willing to pay the higher prices for it. We were still making significant seizures.”

Hawaii High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Executive Director Gary Yabuta said methamphetamine has been the state’s main drug threat for 30 years.

“It comes in from the Mexican cartels through the West Coast to Hawaii. It’s no longer manufactured in Hawaii,” he said.

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The medical examiner’s office said there were 47 drug-related deaths in the state involving illicit opioids in 2020, including 21 involving heroin and 26 involving fentanyl. During the previous year, there were 38 drug-related deaths involving opioids, including 19 involving heroin and 19 involving fentanyl.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said more than 87,200 people died of drug overdoses across the country from Sept. 2019 to Sept. 2020, a 29% increase and the largest number of drug-related deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period. On average, 238 people die daily of a drug overdose in the U.S.

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