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Hawaii’s opioid crisis worsens as providers urge state to invest in treatment, prevention

By Kristen Consillio

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    HONOLULU (KITV) — Jeff Nash has knows firsthand the dangers of opioids.

The former heroin addict who now runs the state’s largest drug treatment center says he’s seen a 20% jump in recent years in the number of residents at Habilitat addicted to the drugs.

And some of them, haven’t made it, including a colleague who last year, slipped back into addiction.

“And two weeks later, he died of a fentanyl overdose. So it hit really close to home,” he said. “Without a doubt the opioid crisis is the worst it’s ever been and to be real honest with you, I don’t see it getting any better.”

It’s gotten so bad this year that drug poisoning deaths have actually outpaced fatal traffic accidents in the islands.

Nash is hoping more people will understand just how quickly opioids can lead to death.

“With fentanyl — we’re talking about a few grains of salt will end your life,” he added.

In 2021, 41 people died from opioid overdoses — almost all fentanyl related, according to the state Health Department. The number surpasses the 34 drug fatalities in 2020 and the 19 deaths in 2019.

“Honestly, I think that with the pandemic, people were trapped inside or fear a lot of things that cause people to want to, you know, use drugs, not deal with things, escape,” said Becky Harrison, another former heroin addict now working for Habilitat. “I think that it just created a worse problem.”

Officials blame drug cartels for importing fentanyl — a highly-potent opioid — throughout the United States and in Hawaii. And warn there’s not enough treatment centers to handle the growing number of people addicted to the drugs.

That’s why providers are urging the state to invest more money in treatment programs — including those targeting women with children and early childhood prevention to slow the number of people who become addicted– and stop the crisis from affecting future generations.

The state has won $78 million in an opioid settlement, but has yet to determine how it will use the money.

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