Asian Stigma Is Killing People in Hawai’i

RE: The Big Island Is Confronting A Big Problem With Fentanyl

Aloha e Paula Dobbyn ~

Mahalo for your informative and educational article. I’m certified to administer NARCAN and counsel people considering opioid use or suffering addiction. According to CDC figures, one person dies of a drug overdose every 11 days on Big Island.

Paula Dobbyn joined Civil Beat in February 2022. She’s a longtime Alaska journalist who previously worked in Washington, D.C., Boston, and Central America.

Paula is passionate about yoga, diving and her family. She’s looking forward to exploring Hawaii’s dive sites and getting her two young daughters certified in scuba. Paula’s husband is a wildlife biologist. 

email: pdobbyn@civilbeat.org

The CDC and University of New Mexico School of Medicine trained me beginning in 2009. NM and West Virginia were ground zero in those days. Served as a workers compensation healthcare economist and discovered an alarming explosion in opioid medication use. The agency allowed me to enroll in the program to learn more. 

I’m a former pro athlete and have suffered many injuries. DRs recommended opioid medications. I have medication allergies to common NSAIDs. Due to my training, I declined opioids. Began an experimental treatment program using medical cannabis. Have endured five major surgeries, a life-threatening auto accident, and used medical cannabis for my pain relief and recovery. 

“I don’t believe it will be a problem, but I will inform my supervisor of the situation and if there are any issues, someone will get back to you.”

HECO HR rep Elizabeth “Liz” Dear regarding permissibility of medical cannabis (2.14.19)

Hawaiian Electric recruited me to work as a non-safety-sensitive IT employee in 2018. The company did not notify me of any restriction on medical cannabis, although their policy required that I be made aware. Even asked my HECO HR rep, Liz Dear, when the company offered me a permanent position.

Ms. Dear assured me I would be fine. Specifically, she claims she stated, “I don’t believe it will be a problem, but I will inform my supervisor of the situation and if there are any issues, someone will get back to you.” Nobody got back to me. Nobody ever told me medical cannabis was prohibited — until HECO fired me.

CEO Connie Lau, Liann Ebesugawa, Susan Li, Thao Tran and Shana Buco. Talented professionals, but failed to provide HECO policy to me. Their mistake. Now they deny me compassion and kindness.
CEO Connie Lau, Liann Ebesugawa, Susan Li, Thao Tran and Shana Buco. Talented professionals, but failed to provide HECO policy to me. Their mistake. Now they deny me compassion and kindness.

HECO terminated my employment with the company two weeks later. Fired for my legal, prescribed medical cannabis use. Famous UH quarterback Colt Brennan dealt with drug and alcohol issues and died after an overdose that included fentanyl. He was 37.

Famous Kaua’i surfer, Andy Irons, died from a combination of a heart attack and drugs in his system, including medications for his bipolar disorder as well as cocaine, methamphetamine and methadone. He was 32. Your article shares the heart-wrenching horror Kym Gentry-Peck suffered to learn her 15-year-old daughter overdosed.

Although I disclosed my legal use, HECO didn’t discuss my medical situation with me. This is why people are dying. Asians have a huge stigma against medical cannabis. One can’t ask; can’t tell. We must hide in shadows.

People who struggle are fearful. Anyone who needs help is afraid to seek help. HECO HR director Shana Buco told me I was a danger to coworkers, the company and general public. Said I was engaged in illegal activity. No discussion — demanded I exit the building immediately, and wasn’t allowed to work for the company going forward. 

In my training, had the opportunity to work with a Hispanic male about 40ish in age, who had suffered addiction since he was 12. His grandfather shot him up with heroin for his birthday. There were no programs for him. He spent his life in and out of prison until our program rescued him. The stigma of drug use closed doors for recovery. All that was available to him were bars on his prison cell. 

Stigma of drug use closed doors for recovery. All that was available were bars on his prison cell. 
Stigma of drug use closed doors for recovery. All that was available were bars on his prison cell. 

I’ve worked closely with Asians in my professional career. I’m close to Asians in my personal life. Remarkable people. However, many are uninformed about cannabis, and deadly wrong about the threat of opioid medications and addiction.

People likely remember the fiasco with state representative Sharon Har. Her story was convoluted and inconsistent, but appears she claimed to mix a cough medication containing codeine and alcohol. HPD stopped Sharon driving the wrong way on Pi’ikoi, I believe. Could have killed dozens. No conviction. Acquitted. 

Asian culture accepts opioid medications, while tolerating and even encouraging alcohol consumption. Tobacco use and vaping of nicotine is common. However, use medical cannabis and lose a job. 

HECO stripped me of my income, as well as healthcare insurance when I was injured and disabled. They stigmatized me as a drug criminal. Tore me away from my work family, my hanai family, and left me isolated in a tiny apartment, while others had the privilege to go to work each day. My apartment became a prison cell.

Due to injuries, I couldn’t get out much. The termination left me embarrassed, humiliated and shamed. My hanai family didn’t reach out to me. I became invisible … isolated, frustrated, alienated … all emotions that lead people to abuse drugs or alcohol. 

I became suicidal. Screamed in anger and pain. Stood at the edge of my 25th floor window many times over the next few months and contemplated taking just one easy, simple step forward. Couldn’t stop crying. I was sullen, dark and without hope.

Emailed my wife’s parents and asked them to encourage her to leave me. I couldn’t stand the guilt — the loud voices in my head — for putting her in this horrible situation. Couldn’t look her in the eyes. Was unable to have sexual relations. I had failed her and couldn’t accept even being close to her.

As you wrote in your article, Ms. Gentry-Peck said, “I completely broke down. I lost it.” Mother Gentry-Peck had raced home, screaming the entire way. I had lost it; I was screaming. Nobody writes the story about a male who has collapsed. This is one reason men and boys suffer more suicide. We don’t have support networks. Society isn’t compassionate about our struggles.

The collective cruelty was killing me. I collapsed emotionally. I had nobody in my life.

How could this be? Had asked HECO about my medication. Believed I was okay; was told I would be okay. Now, my mistake had collapsed our world. 

My wife was scared. I felt worthless. Begged HECO personnel for help; wrote to former colleagues seeking hope or a friendly hand. Nobody responded. Reached out to governor Ige; to my US Congresswoman Tulsi; and to other officials. Silence! 

Begged for just one person to hear my story. Mike Gabbard listened. He was the only individual who extended compassion. Helped me a lot, as the collective cruelty was killing me.

I collapsed emotionally. Had nobody in my life. Although my wife was by my side and said she loved me, her words rang hollow. I hated myself too much. Her presence was actually torturous. Hated having to even see her face. She reminded me of my failure, and the pain, embarrassment and shame I had caused our family. 

As an addiction specialist, I knew of the best practices to begin the road to recovery. I have a well-equipped emotional toolbox. But I saw no road forward. Spoke to my doctor. Nobody could help me. I would have to do the work internally. 

Yet the stigma of being fired for a drug violation was too heavy of a burden. It’s a small island. I had been successful for over six months at HECO. Needed to advertise that history to land a new position. HECO refused to allow my supervisor Lori Yafuso provide a recommendation.

And, a six months stint with a local employer looks bad … why so short people asked? What could I say? HECO fired me for violating their drug policy. Nobody was interested after learning this history. HECO is prestigious. If they didn’t want me, nobody would pick me up. I had zero hope of employment. 

I begged and begged and begged for reconsideration, for a discussion, for fairness, as CEO Connie Lau had pledged. Or for a waiver, as CEO Connie Lau had promised. HECO had stigmatized me — as a drug criminal. Felt so dirty. I’m a medical patient. Wrote to officials that it seemed I was like a leper who was to be banished to Molokai. I was in a “grave where one is buried alive.”

The measure of a man is what he does with power. Plato

Kind, compassionate Asians are not when it comes to medical cannabis. Hawaiian Electric had no functional drug assessment program. People are human. They make mistakes. In the six months at HECO, I received NO drug awareness education or information.

The legal patient suffers discrimination. The recreational user slides by. HECO punished success and reward cheating and failure. 

HECO demanded a drug screen prior to final selection. Had I been a recreational user, could easily passed their assessment. However, as a long-term medical patient, cannabis THC residue (THC-COOH) was deeply saturated in my fat cells. Could take many months to rid the biological markers. Nobody actually knows, as each individual is different. 

HECO punished a legal, medical patient, while allowing recreational users to skirt through and 1,000s of contractors not even to be screened. Once hired, the recreational user could again begin using … not just cannabis, but all illicit and dangerous drugs. The legal patient suffers discrimination. The recreational user slides by. HECO punished success and rewards cheating and failure.

Asian attitudes and stigma are the reason one person dies on Big Island once every 11 days. People are afraid to speak up and ask for help. Kind of like being gay during the Clinton policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” However, silence and shadows related to drug use, as well as abuse, can be a death sentence today. 

Haven’t held a full-time position since the HECO termination. The stigma remains. And, HECO uses my efforts to clear my name and restore my professional reputation to ensure I won’t again work in our islands. This bullying behavior reminds me of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein intimidation and abuse of women: “Speak up and you’ll never work again in Hollywood.” 

Took some 20 years to get Weinstein behind bars. I’m still behind prison bars that HECO created for me. Where’s Asian kindness and compassion? Where’s Asian proficiency and competence? 

This is why Hawai’i residents are dying. There is only an illusion of aloha. Stigma from self-righteous officials strips us of human dignity — and too often, of life.


Remember you heard it here first. Please leave your comments below and be sure to FOLLOW ClearHeath Life Strategies. We provide News of the News You Wish You Knew.

Ko’olau of Kaua’i. I am the Defiant One
“I Believe We Can”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s