The Dark Side Of Surf Party Culture

How much do you know about Hawaii? Besides the Seven Mile Miracle, I mean. Besides Pipeline and Waimea Bay. Besides the Volcom house, the Billabong house, and the other million-dollar properties that line the coast. Besides the faceless girls in bikinis. Besides the threatening, dark-skinned locals who have become sinister caricatures in the mostly white world of surfing. Besides "Respect." Whatever the hell that means.

If you have never spent extended periods of time there and receive most of your info about Hawaii through travel brochures and surf media (like I do), this is probably the extent of your knowledge of the place. It's surfing's slightly disturbing version of Disneyland. It's Mickey Mouse with a neck tattoo and brass knuckles.

This is, of course, a small and aggressively marketed version of a much larger and more complex place. Hawaii is an island nation, a place of great wealth and extreme poverty, where diverse ethnic and socioeconomic groups vie for power and influence while relying heavily on tourism revenues. What you don't see through the lens that rarely strays from the seven most recognizable miles in surfdom is a wider issue that has had an impressively overlooked impact on the community itself: The panoply of illegal drugs permeating the state.

Hawaii has been the capital of methamphetamine use in the U.S. since the 1980s. Estimates for the number of meth addicts in the state reach as high as 120,000 (or 10% of the state's 1.2 million residents). And while it's tearing individual bodies and lives apart, it's not the only thing. In its latest assessment, the National Drug Intelligence center (NDIC) calls ice methamphetamine the greatest drug threat to Hawaii followed by, in no particular order: cocaine, cannabis, heroin and the rising abuse of prescription drugs like opioid pain killers.

Methamphetamine first appeared in Hawaii when Chinese drug trafficking organizations began test-marketing ice, a crystallized form of methamphetamine, in the Philippines, Korea, and other parts of Southeast Asia. From there, it came to Hawaii with the large Asian diaspora communities. The state has been identified by the NDIC as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area because it supplies marijuana to the mainland and receives ice from California and Mexico. Its heavy reliance on shipping, both to import and export goods, facilitates the movement of drugs.

When I started interviewing people to get a better grip on methamphetamine's impact, I suspected that ice hit the Hawaiian surf community much the same way that heroin did in Australia and Hawaii in the '80s. It turns out that while the surf community hasn't taken a direct hit from ice, it's not immune to its impact, suggests Hawaiian Cultural Studies teacher and traditional board shaper Tom Pohaku Stone. Stone has a Master's degree in Pacific Island studies and can speak as fluently about the sociological history of Hawaii as he can carve an olo, which is to say very fluently.

"Personally, I have had no experience with this drug," he says, "but it has taken a toll on my ohana. My nephews, niece, younger sisters, and other extended family have fallen to this drug and it is not an easy road to get off of.... In my native community, it is sad to see the youth falling to this 'recreational' drug and a lot of young girls, not women, are now providing sexual services for it."

Drug-related prostitution rarely sits well with tourism boards, so ice has become something of a gorilla in the room for surf marketing (indeed, all tourism marketing) especially given surfers' propensity to indulge in other drugs.

The Free Spirit Catch-22
"The surfing world has maintained that 'free party' image that was popularized through the movies in the 1950s and '60s," says Stone. "Drugs and alcohol are a mainstream component of the image and have influenced other areas of the fashion and product industry. This is not to say that everyone is caught in the BS, but it is what keeps bringing tourism to Hawaii. It plays off of the early promotion of surfing—the free-spirited beach boy image that was used to sell Hawaii and it is still the same."

What defined surf culture is now creating problems for it. "The surfing community is impacted mostly by cocaine, amphetamines, heroin, Viagra (this is the new stimulant—like speed), and the other drugs used consistently in almost all American sports. The most common is 'weed,' which I do not see as a drug, and it should be legalized already, just like alcohol," says Stone.

The drug-related death of one of surfing's most celebrated rebels, Andy Irons, in November 2010, has thrown a wrench into this paradigm. When the free party begins wracking up casualties, perhaps it's time to scale it back.

1970s surf legend Montgomery "Buttons" Kaluhiokalani could very easily have met the same fate. At 53 years old, he spent roughly thirty years addicted to various drugs, including heroin. Since coming clean almost five years ago, he's begun to give talks to schools and rehabilitation centers while also promoting clean living through his Buttons Surf School.

"Everyone was using drugs back in my day," he says. "No one really cared, actually. No one really told me what they can do to you in the later part of your life. No one really said nothing. They thought, 'This kid is a good surfer. Wow, he can make it to the top,' so they didn't say anything. Also, I never had a dad, and my mom didn't tell me I shouldn't be doing this." He paused. "Also, I didn't really want to listen."

The Youth Advantage
Today's youngest surfers may have an advantage beyond hearing talks by people like Kaluhiokalani. "They know that drugs have taken the lives of great surfers and ruined the lives of countless others," writes North Shore resident pro surfer Pancho Sullivan via email. Drug use has been rampant in the surf culture and I think that [there] is a greater awareness in general of how quickly you can lose everything in your life if you go down that path."

And now, there may be more to lose. "I think that the culture has changed within the sport with the realization that you can earn a decent living as a pro surfer and potentially set yourself up for the future. Back in the day, I think being a pro surfer was more lifestyle driven. Guys knew they were never going to make much money as a pro surfer so they lived it up and partied their way around the world. I think each generation learns from the one before, which, in this case, is a very good thing."

If Hawaii is handicapped by its history of U.S. annexation and the difficulties of being an island state, its strength lies in its communities and the people within them who promote positive choices—like Stone, Kaluhiokalani and Sullivan.

When I asked Sullivan if the recent decision by the ASP to ban recreational drugs from competitive surfing robbed surfing of some of its soul, he responded with a bit of glibness: "...drugs rob you of your 'soul' so I would have to disagree with the notion that this policy is taking something like 'soul' away from surfing."

This article first appeared on The Inertia.