Kaua’i Fentanyl Task Force starts following rise in drug overdoses

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The coordinator of Kauaʻi’s new fentanyl task force says the group has officially formed and is working on a harm reduction approach throughout the island, while a leader of the state’s drug enforcement program provided recent drug overdose data and expressed concerns about a rise in fentanyl abuse in the state.

Kauaʻi Fentanyl Task Force members, including Dr. Graham Chelius, center, a family doctor in Waimea, spoke with members of the public during the group’s first information booth at the Ola Pono O Kauai health conference on May 14, 2024. (Courtesy of the County of Kauaʻi Office of the Prosecuting Attorney)

Last month, Michael Miranda, the program coordinator for Life’s Choices, an anti-drug program within the County’s Office of the Prosecuting Attorney, announced plans for a fentanyl task force on Kauaʻi to reduce the use of the deadly opioid drug. 

In an interview earlier this week, Miranda provided an update on recent progress, stating the task force has formally started through the creation of a prevention and treatment committee to address immediate fentanyl needs. According to Miranda, the committee currently has about 45 members from 25 different agencies.

“The latest data found out is slightly worse than expected,” Miranda said. He referred to recent data from the state’s High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program (HIDTA), which reported there had been 30 drug-related overdoses on Kauaʻi in 2023, compared to 23 in the previous year. 

Gary Yabuta, the executive director of the Hawaiʻi HIDTA, submitted the organization’s data to Kaua’i Now, which showed drug-related deaths in all counties from 2018 to 2023. 

Across the state, there were a total of 346 drug-related deaths in 2023, an over 8 percent increase when compared to 320 deaths in 2022. That was divided into 30 drug-related deaths on Kauaʻi, 32 on Hawaiʻi Island, 64 on Maui, and 220 on Oʻahu.

A chart showing drug-related overdose numbers for Hawai’i from 2018 to 2023. (Submitted by Gary Yabuta of the Hawaiʻi HIDTA)

While meth was the cause of the majority of the deaths, Yabuta noted that fentanyl is catching up.

According to another chart provided by Yabuta, 9 of the 30 Kaua’i drug-related deaths in 2023 were attributed to fentanyl.  That can be compared to 10 fentanyl deaths on Kauai in 2022, 9 in 2021, 3 in 2020, 1 in 2019, and 0 in 2018.

A chart showing Kauaʻi County drug deaths by category from 2018 through 2023. Note that some deaths are attributed to having been caused by more than one drug. (Submitted by Gary Yabuta of the Hawaiʻi HIDTA)

Even though there was a slight reduction in the number of fentanyl deaths on Kaua’i from 2022 to 2023, Yabuta said he believes fentanyl abuse is rising in the state. “I think fentanyl’s becoming more and more of a problem, and certainly here in Hawaiʻi,” he said.

“We’ve got to arrest the drug traffickers that are selling fentanyl. It’s a poison and they’re selling this poison and killing our people. We can’t celebrate at all because there was one death less in 2023 than in 2022 on Kauaʻi.”

Yabuta noted that other counties saw increases in fentanyl deaths, especially on Maui, where fentanyl deaths went from 14 in 2022, to 36 in 2023. 


Statewide, fentanyl deaths went up to 107 in 2023, compared to 79 the previous year. 

“The bottom line is, you have 107 people in Hawaiʻi that died of fentanyl,” he said, emphasizing that Hawai’i is one community. “We have to look at ourselves as a state.” 

“It’s not picking on any particular island. So it’s just spontaneous. It’s everywhere. And we just gotta keep looking at the numbers and never, ever think about patting ourselves on the back.” 

Yabuta suspects that death rates may not align with increases in the amount of fentanyl use due to the rise of the distribution of Narcan, or Naloxone, a medication used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.

“From the perspective of people that are seeing fentanyl abuse every day, they don’t see a reduction at all,” he said. “It could be people aren’t dying as rapidly as before because of fentanyl because they’re using Narcan.”


For the past few years, the state has been working to make overdose-reversing medication accessible to the public.

In July of last year, the County of Kauaʻi began distributing Narcan kits to all liquor licensees on the island, making the medication available at all dispensaries, restaurants, cruise ships, and any other business with a liquor license.

The decision followed Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s signing of Bill 28 on July 25, 2023, which required all bars and restaurants in the city to carry the medication.

Shortly after that, in August of 2023, the Hawaiʻi Health & Harm Reduction Center began implementing Narcan vending machines in Honolulu, Kauaʻi, Maui, and Hawaiʻi Counties.

County of Kauaʻi representative Miranda said Kauaʻi currently has one vending machine in active use, located at the Piikoi Building at the Lihuʻe Civic Center. He’s hoping to get at least one other machine in use on Kauaʻi in the coming weeks.

“We’re trying to saturate the island with Naloxone. Not just the vending machines but making sure the various public places are supplied with Naloxone,” Miranda said, which include gyms and public libraries.

Miranda also added the Kaua’i Fentanyl Task Force is starting a prevention and harm reduction campaign to destigmatize the use of Narcan and fentanyl strips.  

He emphasized the importance of the “harm reduction” approach in giving people strips to test for the presence of fentanyl before use. “The old way of thinking is 100 percent abstinence from substance use, but people are human,” Miranda said, noting the task force also plans to provide education on the dangers of drug use.

Yabuta was aware of Hawaiʻi Island’s similar task force, which was used as a model for the County of Kaua’i. However, he noted the HIDTA is not involved in either of the programs.

“We don’t, you know, endorse or condone any organization that’s dealing in drugs,” he said. “We help when necessary, but we’re not part of any drug prevention or treatment program other than our own.”

The Kaua’i Fentanyl Task Force had its first information booth at the Ola Pono O Kauai (Health & Wellbeing of Kaua’i) conference on May 14, 2024, held at Kaua’i Community College, where Miranda and four other task force members distributed Narcan, resource brochures, and invited people to join. 

“We encourage anyone that feels like they can contribute, whether they’re a treatment provider as educators, people who work in prevention, or even people with lived experience, survivors,” Miranda said.

The Kauaʻi Fentanyl Task Force will have its next general meeting on June 5, which will be held through Zoom. A treatment committee meeting, which is also open to the public, will be held on June 12, at the HHSC Lihu’e Clinic.  Information regarding the Kaua’i Fentanyl Task Force’s upcoming event will be posted on the county’s website.


Emma Grunwald
Emma Grunwald is a reporter for Kauaʻi Now. You can reach her at
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