Lawmakers scramble to find solutions to head off opioid crisis in Hawaii

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - In an effort to tackle the growing opioid crisis, lawmakers are looking to crack down on so-called "pill mills" and improve how prescription drugs are tracked and disposed of.

But will new laws stop the trend in Hawaii?

Andy Lee said his own struggle with prescription drugs started in 2009, when he got pancreatitis.

"Because of the excruciating pains, in the beginning it was medicinal purposes," he said. But soon, "I realized, I loved it."

After just a few weeks he knew, he was addicted.

The numbers nationwide are staggering, with many states in crisis mode. Hawaii is not there yet — but is on track to be.

Hawaii Poison Center figures from 2011 to 2017 show the state below the national average when it comes to most opioid exposure rates, with the exception of Oxycodone, morphine and opioids mixed with aspirin.

"It's just making big jumps from zero to 1 percent, then to 5 percent in one year," said Alan Johnson, executive director of Hina Mauka.

He said some 500,000 pills are prescribed for about a third of the population. "That's huge numbers of over prescribing," he said.

Lee, the recovering addict, said it wasn't hard to find people willing to push the pills.

"Go see this doctor," they would tell him. "You pay him some money and he'll fill you out a prescription and you can fill it out with your insurance card."

Multiple bills going through the state Legislature are meant to curb over prescribing.

And state Rep. Beth Fukumoto's bill, House Bill 2125, would designate pharmacies to take back left over prescriptions.

Fukumoto said the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, which holds take-back programs twice a year, can authorize pharmacies to be disposal facilities.

She added the DEA's take-back program is a great idea, getting leftover pills out of the home, but her bill would allow that to happen year-round.

"The chances that you hold on to those and remember to turn them back in, and nobody gets a hold of them in the meantime are not high," she said.

Numerous other bills would force doctors to use an existing monitoring system to ensure patients aren't getting pills from multiple doctors, and would require warning labels on certain drug bottles.

Lee said all of those could have helped him avoid addiction. But once someone is at that point, he added, it's very difficult to turn around.

That's why he says more should be done to help those suffering from addiction.

He says the drive to use is so strong, even when he spent three weeks detoxing in the Oahu Community Correctional Center, he couldn't kick the habit."The day I got bailed out, I started shooting up. And it was weird, I said I'm not going to use it, I'm detoxed, I don't need it but this thing is so powerful it drew me right back to it."  More arrests followed and HOPE probation too.  Finally in 2017, nine years after he popped his first pain pill, he checked himself in to a residential treatment facility.

Drug Court Judge Ed Kubo says it's often a predictable pattern and by the time addicts are finally ready to get help, they can't get it quickly, "We need more money for treatment. I have so many people on the waiting list to get into treatment programs when somebody cries out for help today, we may not be able to get them the help that they need for 30 days, 60, 90, sometimes six months."

Andy Lee has been clean for more than a year now.  He says if better monitoring of prescriptions were done years ago, he might not have fallen into the cycle of addiction, but he hopes lawmakers realize help needs to also be more readily available.

"I feel great today, relieved." Lee says, "I was able to remove that ball and chain, this thing that had a hold of me."

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