KAILUA-KONA — The school year is already approaching.
And to help prepare for the upcoming year, D.A.R.E. officers were informed about new trends in youth drug abuse on Thursday during a training session at the King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel.
“If we’re not going to stop our teens, we’re not going to stop our adults,” said Gary Shimabukuro, a drug educator since 1978.
DEA statistics show that many adult addicts begin as youth, he said, in part because the brain is not finished developing. The immature pre-frontal cortex leads to increased risk-taking and drug use can lead to altered brain structure.
But one troubling concern is happening: The explosion of designer drugs, which are built to get around regulations or provide a specific type of high, has made things even more dangerous because it means people aren’t taking the pills they think they are, he said, and the potency of the unsuspecting ingestion can be fatal.
“They don’t even know what they’re taking. We can’t even tell what they’re taking,” he said.
He referenced the site ecstacydata.org, a group that tests pills from around the world. The pills were pure ecstasy in 60.5 percent of those sold as ecstasy in 2015, 34.4 percent in 2014 and 37.9 percent 2013.
Many included no Ecstasy at all. The most common adulterants were ecstasy-like chemicals, stimulants and psychedelics, the group reported.
“Most tablets were voluntarily submitted by harm reduction workers or individuals and the data will naturally have unknowable sampling biases,” the group writes, cautioning against generalizing for any specific market.
Part of that is because people can now buy pill presses from China, Shimabukuro said, allowing them to make drugs look like professionally produced medications.
That can include repackaging medication used for the relief of menstrual symptoms.
“You go to the rave, pay $20, you think you’re going to be good for the whole two hours, you aren’t. Good thing you won’t get cramps or headaches,” Shimabukuro said.
That’s the more positive option, he said, because other drugs present can be deadly if the user’s body isn’t prepared.
Hawaii has already seen deaths from pills tainted by the powerful pain medication fentanyl, he said.
Other drugs show effects more connected with the aggression and pain resistance of PCP than with the calming elements of marijuana, he said.
The new drugs also make life difficult for law enforcement, said Jared Redulla, supervisory special agent with the state Narcotics Enforcement Division.
He gestured to one of the names of a new compound, a mix “a,” “y,” “x” and numerals that comprise the drug’s chemical name, that officers will have to know about. Officers will need to be aware of the risks of these new drugs, as well as their names, he said, so they can make arrests and advise prosecutors.
But older drugs are still an issue.
The DEA said that the drug reported of most concern nationwide in 2015 was heroin, reflecting a continual increase since 2007.
Part of that reason is because people who begin abusing prescription painkillers move over to heroin because of its lower cost, higher availability and reformulation of OxyContin. The reformulation made the drug harder to abuse.
That’s something Shimabukuro has reported seeing, as economics drive addicts “who never thought they’d be sticking a needle in their arm” toward heroin.
A major drive for Shimabukuro is reducing the number of deaths and near-fatal incidents that result from drug use. Citing the CDC, 50 people a day die from painkiller overdoses, he said.
There are also people with brain damage so intense they are unable to control their bodies, leaving family members to make sure their fingers do not dig holes in their hands.
“All the loved ones will pay that price and they’ll pay that price for a long time,” he said.