The State of Aloha

When I was in the 5th grade at Haiku Elementary School, we took a field trip to the War Memorial Stadium. We had been waiting for this day to come for almost a year. Our section of the stadium (this was before it was remodeled for the Hula Bowl so there were no seats behind the end zones) was poised perfectly near the 50-yard line. All around us were other excited elementary school students from Maui.

It was D.A.R.E. Day – a presentation put on by the Maui Police Department. D.A.R.E. (drug abuse resistance education) is a nationwide program putting armed and uniformed officers in elementary schools for what seemed to me as a long time. The officer assigned to Haiku Elementary told us about drug abuse and had us vow never to use drugs, join a gang and, above all, to just say no.

This was the capping event of the program. Officers were there to rally the student troops and whip up a frenzy of excitement. There were all kinds of demonstrations of police power. There were the fierce German shepherds.

A guy with padding around his arms and shoulders fired blanks at an officer. Then the dogs were released on him and he tried to run.

As we watched the dogs rip up the padding, someone on a microphone explained that the places of attack were not lethal but designed to bring about so much pain that the target was no longer a threat or could no longer get away.

Next came the monster truck that revved its engines and crushed a junk car with the word “DRUGS” spray-painted on its doors. But the most memorable part for me was the helicopter.

A helicopter resembling the ones I’d seen in movies about the Vietnam War hovered above the stadium. The emcee of the event explained that what we were about to witness was a simulated “Green Harvest” raid. An officer rappelled down a rope and snatched up fake marijuana plants on the stage in the middle of the field. Then he waved at the crowd and pulled himself back into the chopper.

So that was it! Nearly every one of us from Haiku School was familiar with the sound of helicopters buzzing over our homes, streets and neighborhoods. Now we got to finally see it firsthand. When it was all over, we got to storm the field and check out police cars, talk to the officers and get a free soda.

I’ve learned a lot more about the police and especially “Operation Green Harvest” since that day. Police officers fly around in helicopters to spot marijuana-growing operations in the remote parts of the island. Turns out that the police departments receive grant money to keep the helicopters flying. The police work in conjunction with the U.S. Army National Guard and the Drug Enforcement Agency.

It is a terrifying experience reminiscent of scenes from “Apocalypse Now.” Opponents say that the choppers sometimes fly as low as 75 feet above the ground. The buzzing and vibrations have damaged property, frightened animals and harassed residents. Their voices are finally starting to be heard.

The Big Island’s county council has been openly hostile to this tactic. A few years ago, it passed an ordinance to deprioritize the operations. The police ignored it, and the county faced a lawsuit for its failure to implement the law itself. The county fought it and won, but the plaintiffs appealed.

Obnoxious police surveillance is part of the long, sordid history of our “War on Drugs.” The war declared by President Richard Nixon may be falling out of favor these days, but make no mistake: It rages on.

Legislators are still reluctant to strike the harsh criminal penalties. Judges are still required to put more and more people into our prison system. And the extensive vigilance (and funding) of special units within police departments, public and private corrections industries and prosecutor’s offices has not waivered. In fact, last week, our appellate court, the Intermediate Court of Appeals, found no error in the county’s victory on the Big Island.

Looks like this year there are more bills that would pull us away from this aggressive tactic toward drug use. Last year there was similar talk, but the House killed all bills that would decriminalize the use of marijuana. Let’s see if the bills this year meet a similar fate.

The “War on Drugs” is a war on our own people. The crackdown on narcotics has not helped people abstain from them. It has certainly not helped eliminate the contraband economy either. All that it has done is erode our confidence in the need to investigate and prosecute criminality by trivializing the crimes themselves. But that doesn’t seem to matter. The war rages on.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is 808stateofaloha@gmail.com. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis’ “Neighbors.”