How much do you know about Hawaii? Besides the Seven Mile Miracle, I mean. Besides Pipeline and Waimea Bay. Besides Da Hui and the Wolf Pack. Besides the Volcom house, the Billabong house, and the other million-dollar properties that line the coast. Besides the faceless girls in bikinis. Besides the threatening, dark-skinned locals who have become sinister caricatures in the mostly white world of surfing. Besides “Respect.” Whatever the hell that means.
If you have never spent extended periods of time there and receive most of your info about Hawaii through travel brochures and surf media (like I do), this is probably the extent of your knowledge of the place. It’s surfing’s slightly disturbing version of Disneyland. It’s Mickey Mouse with a neck tattoo and brass knuckles.
This is, of course, a small and aggressively marketed version of a much larger and more complex place. Hawaii is an island nation. It’s a place of great wealth and extreme poverty – where diverse ethnic and socioeconomic groups vie for power and influence while relying heavily on tourism revenues. So let’s step outside the lens that rarely strays from the seven most recognizable miles in surfdom for a minute and consider a wider issue that has had an impressively overlooked impact on the community itself. Let’s take a look at drugs.
Hawaii has been the capital of methamphetamine use in the United States since the 1980s. Methamphetamine first appeared in Hawaii when Chinese drug trafficking organizations began test-marketing ice, a crystallized form of methamphetamine, in the Philippines, Korea, and other parts of South East Asia. From there, it came to Hawaii with the large Asian diaspora communities. Some public figures have even accused the federal government of ignoring the problem in order to focus attention on marijuana eradication in the state.
If this was true in the past, it seems that the national growth of methamphetamine use has changed the government’s outlook slightly. In its latest assessment, the National Drug Intelligence center (NDIC) calls ice methamphetamine the greatest drug threat to Hawaii followed by, in no particular order: cocaine, cannabis, heroin, and the rising abuse of prescription drugs like opioid pain killers.
The NDIC has identified Hawaii as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area because it supplies marijuana to the mainland and receives ice from California and Mexico. Its heavy reliance on shipping, both to import and export goods, facilitates the movement of drugs.
When I started interviewing people to get a better grip on methamphetamine’s impact on Hawaii’s surf community over the years, I suspected that ice hit the Hawaiian surf community much the same way that heroin did in Australia and Hawaii in the ‘80s. This turned out to be a false assumption. “The funny thing is that the surfing community, for the most part, is not impacted by the “ice” epidemic,” said Hawaiian Cultural Studies teacher and traditional board shaper, Tom Pohaku Stone. Stone has a masters degree in Pacific Island studies and can talk as fluently about the sociological history of Hawaii as he can carve an olo. Very fluently.
This is encouraging news considering that estimates for the number of meth addicts in the state reach as high as 120,000 (total pop: 1.2 million). Nearly 35 percent of men jailed jailed in Honolulu had the drug in their system – a percentage higher than any other city in America.
Stone notes, however, that ice still manages to impact the surfing community indirectly, just as it is impacting all of Hawaii. “Personally, I have had no experience with this drug,” he said, “but it has taken a toll on my ohana. My nephews, niece, younger sisters, and other extended family have fallen to this drug and it is not an easy road to get off of…In my native community, it is sad to see the youth falling to this ‘recreational’ drug and a lot of young girls, not women, are now providing sexual services for it.”
Drug-related prostitution rarely sits well with tourism boards, so ice has become something of a gorilla in the room for surf marketing (indeed, all tourism marketing) especially given surfers’ propensity to indulge in other drugs.
“The surfing world has maintained that ‘free party’ image that was popularized through the movies in the ‘50s and ‘60s,” said Stone. “Drugs and alcohol are a mainstream component of the image and have influenced other areas of the fashion and product industry. This is not to say that everyone is caught in the BS, but it is what keeps bringing tourism to Hawai’i. It plays off of the early promotion of surfing – the free-spirited beach boy image that was used to sell Hawai’i and it is still the same.”
If not ice, what drugs are surfers using? “The surfing community is impacted mostly by cocaine, amphetamines, heroin, Viagra (this is the new stimulant – like speed), and the other drugs used consistently in almost all American sports and not just surfing. The most common is “weed,” which I do not see as a drug, and it should be legalized already just like alcohol.”