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Illicit drug production in the Hawaii HIDTA region principally involves extensive cannabis cultivation, some crack cocaine conversion, and very limited methamphetamine production.

The Hawaii HIDTA region is one of the most significant cannabis cultivation and marijuana production areas in the nation. According to DCE/SP data, Hawaii consistently ranks among the top states for the total number of cannabis plants eradicated each year. In 2008, more than 102,000 cannabis plants were eradicated from both outdoor and indoor grow sites. DCE/SP data also indicate that 26 percent fewer cannabis plants were eradicated in Hawaii in 2008 (102,771) than in 2007 (139,089). This situation is very likely the result of fewer eradication operations rather than a reduction in cannabis cultivation. Eradication operations on the Big Island of Hawaii (where most of the state's cannabis cultivation takes place) were curtailed beginning in May 2008 when the County Council voted not to accept DCE/SP funding for aerial surveillance and eradication efforts, citing complaints from many residents who reportedly opposed the program because low-flying helicopter missions violated their privacy and disrupted rural life. Consequently, law enforcement agencies have been constrained in their efforts to effectively monitor cannabis grow activity.

Cannabis has been cultivated outdoors in Hawaii for decades because the tropical climate is conducive to year-round cultivation. Law enforcement reporting indicates that most outdoor cannabis cultivation takes place on the islands of Hawaii, Maui, Kauai, and Oahu, particularly on lands of the State Department of Land and Natural Resources Land Division in Hawaii and Maui Counties. Controlling cultivation in these areas is particularly challenging for law enforcement because of the vast tracts of unincorporated land available for hiding cannabis plants among native vegetation. Outdoor cultivation operations are conducted primarily by local Asian and Polynesian criminal groups and some Caucasian groups, including those that have relocated to Hawaii from the U.S. mainland.

Indoor cannabis cultivation in Hawaii is increasing because of the higher profits generated by year-round operations and controlled conditions that enable growers to produce high-potency marijuana that commands premium prices in most drug markets. Indoor cannabis cultivators typically use advanced growing techniques that include lighting, irrigation systems, chemical fertilizers, and plant cloning.6 Indoor grow sites typically average fewer plants than outdoor grows and range in size from a single closet to entire houses or larger buildings that are converted into sophisticated grow operations. Some indoor grow sites have been relocated to residences or outbuildings on land formerly used for outdoor cannabis cultivation. Some indoor cultivators bypass electric meters to eliminate high energy-use readings, large electric bills, and possible law enforcement scrutiny. Caucasian criminal groups and local independent dealers are the primary producers of high-potency marijuana from indoor cannabis cultivation sites in the HIDTA region.

Indoor grow sites also pose considerable safety and health concerns for law enforcement officers, first responders, and the general public. Buildings used for indoor grow sites are fire hazards due to the presence of the chemical fertilizers, high-intensity lighting, electrical equipment, and reconfigured electrical systems. High levels of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide may also be present at indoor grow sites as a result of damaged exhaust systems. Moreover, the prolonged high humidity at indoor grow sites often results in the growth of toxic green and black molds. As a result of the inherent dangers from exposure to these hazardous conditions, some law enforcement officers are now using basic air monitoring equipment, respirators, coveralls, gloves and disposable boot covers when entering these sites.

According to law enforcement officials, some cannabis cultivators exploit Hawaii's state medical marijuana laws to conduct illegal grow operations, primarily on the Big Island.7 In 2008, 4,560 people were registered for medical marijuana certificates--a 41 percent increase from the 3,240 people registered in 2007 and a 104 percent increase from the 2,241 registered in 2006. While 64 percent of the state's registered patients are located on the Big Island, notably only 12 percent of the state's population resides there. Most of the state's cannabis is illegally cultivated on the Big Island.

Local retail-level traffickers typically convert powder cocaine to crack cocaine on a limited basis in the Hawaii HIDTA region. Crack conversion by these local distributors typically takes place at or near distribution sites on an as-needed basis, usually in ounce quantities.

Local methamphetamine production in Hawaii is very limited and currently does not pose a threat to the HIDTA region. This situation is largely a result of successful law enforcement operations and the state of Hawaii's regulatory efforts and point-of-sale restrictions to control precursor chemicals. According to the National Seizure System (NSS), no methamphetamine production laboratories or ice conversion laboratories8 were seized in the HIDTA region from January 2007 through November 2008. Only 4 methamphetamine laboratories were seized in 2006, 9 in 2005, and 10 in 2004. One ice conversion laboratory was seized in 2006, and 6 were seized in both 2005 and 2004.

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Drug traffickers exploit Hawaii's heavy reliance on the importation of consumer goods by air and maritime conveyances to transport illicit drugs to the state. Illicit drugs are transported primarily into the Honolulu International Airport on Oahu through the international postal facility or by couriers aboard commercial flights. While most of the illicit drugs transported to Oahu are abused there, some drugs are transported on interisland flights to neighboring islands for subsequent distribution. Additionally, six of the eight islands have direct flight service to and from major cities on the U.S. mainland, Asia, and Canada; these services facilitate the transportation of illicit drugs from these locations. Hawaii's system of commercial harbors consists of 10 harbors on six islands through which most imported goods enter the state; however, limited information and resources make detection and interdiction efforts at these facilities extremely challenging for U.S. Customs and Border Protection and other law enforcement officials.

Mexican DTOs are the primary transporters of most illicit drugs available in the state from the west coast of the U.S. mainland. Mexican DTOs use their well-developed networks to transport wholesale quantities of ice methamphetamine, cocaine, and heroin across the U.S.-Mexico border to drug markets, primarily in California and Nevada, where the drugs are divided into smaller quantities and subsequently shipped to Hawaii. Mexican DTOs also transport ice methamphetamine produced in California into Hawaii. Asian DTOs are increasingly transporting illicit drugs into Hawaii--particularly high-potency marijuana from Canada, northern California, Oregon, and Washington, and ice methamphetamine and heroin from Asia. Asian traffickers also use Hawaii as a transshipment point for ice methamphetamine transported from the West Coast to the Pacific Basin, primarily Guam.

Fifty Pounds of Ice Methamphetamine Seized at the Honolulu International Airport

In February 2008, a Federal Express employee in Los Angeles, California, shipped two boxes containing a total of 50 pounds of ice methamphetamine to Honolulu. The employee planned to fly to Honolulu, retrieve the packages, and deliver them to his contacts on the island. The drugs were concealed in 50 1-pound plastic containers, wrapped in plastic to avoid detection, and equally divided between the two boxes. As an employee of the company, he did not anticipate a search of his shipment; however, Federal Express Security in Los Angeles discovered the drugs in the boxes and contacted the DEA.

DEA officials with the Honolulu Airport Interdiction Task Force followed the packages through a controlled delivery and allowed the Federal Express employee to take possession of the boxes. The employee delivered them to a coconspirator at a local shopping center, and that individual took the boxes to a local residence, where a third male coconspirator opened the packages the next day. All three men were subsequently arrested. According to the U.S. Attorneys Office, District of Hawaii, this was the largest package seizure of methamphetamine in Hawaii in more than 20 years. The drugs had an estimated street value of $1.5 million.

Source: Drug Enforcement Administration, Hawaii Airport Task Force.

Photo of one of the boxes containing ice methamphetamine.

Photo showing a cardboard box containing six rectangular containers of ice methamphetamine.

Drug Enforcement Administration.


6. Plant cloning enables cannabis cultivators to select higher-quality plants and avoid male/female pollination, thereby raising potential THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) content. THC is the psychoactive chemical in marijuana. Cloning a cannabis plant is accomplished by simply taking a cutting of a select plant, allowing the cutting to sprout roots, and then planting it as a seedling. The resulting plant has the same genetic makeup as the parent plant.
7. In June 2000, Hawaii became the sixth state to legalize the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Hawaii's medical marijuana law (Act 228/Senate Bill 862 SD 2 HD) allows registered patients to have 1 ounce of usable marijuana per each mature plant. The possession limit is defined as 3 usable ounces consisting of 7 plants--3 mature and 4 immature. The law removes state criminal penalties for the use and possession of marijuana and the cultivation of cannabis by qualifying patients. Patients qualify through diagnosis and physician certification of certain medical conditions. The state of Hawaii's Department of Public Safety issues identification cards and maintains a registry of qualifying patients, caregivers, and physicians. In June 2008, the Governor of Hawaii signed Act 186 into law that further defined the term "physician-patient relationship" and penalties for noncompliance to this section. The impact of this legislation on illicit cannabis cultivation and marijuana abuse has not yet been determined.
8. Methamphetamine conversion laboratories are sometimes used by local distributors to convert powder methamphetamine to ice methamphetamine or to "clean up" ice methamphetamine that is of poor quality.

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