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Scared Straight

Star Advertiser, Aug. 6, 2011

The 11th-graders in Kaleo Akim's first-period class sat with their jaws agape yesterday as they stared at photos of how crystal methamphetamine can ravage the teeth, gums and mouths of teenagers like them.

"That gets their attention," Jennifer Phakoom, program manager for the Hawaii Meth Project, said before her presentation to 19 students at Kaimuki High School. "Kids are very concerned with their physical appearance, and scabs, sores and 'meth mouth' definitely make an impression with them."

Two months after launching a new series of television commercials and ads, the Hawaii Meth Project is taking its message of "Not Even Once" to a new generation of island school kids, in groups large and small, beginning yesterday with Akim's "Advancement Via Individual Determination" -- or AVID -- students.

They're hardly the overachievers of Kaimuki High School. The students in Akim's program score in the middle to low percentiles academically and would be the first in their families to go to college -- if they make the right choices, Akim said.

Phakoom does not want to preach to the converted. Through slides, commercials, real-life testimonials and an occasional impromptu pop quiz, Phakoom works to arm Hawaii kids with accurate information so they will know the path they are headed down if they try "ice" even once.

"It can change you completely," Phakoom told Akim's students. "But if you guys know what the facts are, you're less likely to engage in risky behavior. You guys are very, very powerful. You have more influence than you think."

In response to a question from one of the students, Phakoom said she did not realize that her old boyfriend was a meth addict until after she moved from San Francisco to Hawaii and began working with the Hawaii Meth Project.

The message of how pervasive and damaging meth can be is even more important during a time of high island unemployment and signs that meth use is on the rise.

One in 80 people taking a job-related drug screening tested positive for amphetamines in the second quarter of the year, a 70 percent increase from a year earlier, said Diagnostic Laboratory Services, Hawaii's largest drug-testing firm.

Honolulu police arrests for meth-related offenses for the first five months of the year are on pace to exceed last year's 289 meth-related arrests.

Phakoom told the students yesterday what crystal meth is made of -- including hydrochloric acid, nail polish remover and sulfuric acid -- and described how it reacts in the body to produce an initial euphoria that becomes addictive in 85 to 95 percent of the people who try it.

"But when you smoke ice," Phakoom said, "you're inhaling things like Drano and battery acid."

She talked about Hawaii teenagers, both boys and girls, who get swept up into prostitution to finance their meth addictions, and about meth babies born underweight and with undersize heads.

It was an unflinching look at lives ruined by crystal meth, including an audio interview with a 16-year-old Wailuku boy who tried ice at the age of 12 and later tried to hang himself in his bedroom.

As Akim's class sat silently, the boy said, "That one hit really changes your life."

Phakoom encouraged the Kaimuki High students to realize they are role models to their friends and younger brothers and sisters -- and that other people's good decisions depend on them.

After class, 16-year-old Travis Namba said, "We can be a positive influence."

Kyla Anderson, 15, said the message about crystal meth was clear: "It can ruin your life," she said. "And you can never turn back."