MOUNT VERNON — In a new approach to deterring substance abuse in Eastern Kentucky, a federally funded task force will provide free kits that parents can use to test their kids at home for drug use.
Officials say they hope the program will facilitate discussion about drug abuse and give young people an out in the face of pressure or suggestions from others that they use drugs.
"It gives them a reason to say no" because they can tell their friends they could be drug-tested at home, said Frank Rapier, executive director of the Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.
The program is a partnership of the Appalachia HIDTA and Operation UNITE, which covers 32 counties in Eastern and Southern Kentucky and sponsors drug-prevention programs, provides treatment funding and conducts investigations.
The program will start in Rockcastle County, where UNITE has a strong network of school clubs and volunteers.
The Appalachia HIDTA is paying for the program, and UNITE will promote it and distribute the kits.
Volunteers delivered about 650 of the kits to 13 distribution points in the county Tuesday, and 500 more are ready to go, said Nancy Hale, a retired educator who is active with UNITE.
Rapier said officials will take the pilot program to Pike County next month.
If the early efforts show the program is helping deter drug abuse, his goal is to expand it throughout the Appalachia HIDTA, which covers 61 counties in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, Rapier said.
The task force, which funds and coordinates drug investigations, set aside $50,000 to pay for the kits. That was enough for more than 5,000.
Rapier said he will work for more funding for the program if necessary.
If the initiative diverts young people from the road to addiction and the pain and costs that involves — including law enforcement and treatment costs — it will be money well spent, Rapier said.
"I think this is a way to break that cycle," he said.
Officials announced the pilot program at an event at Rockcastle County High School on Tuesday attended by several hundred students.
U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican whose 5th District has been hit hard by substance abuse, told the students that age 11 is the average age when young people in the region first use drugs.
It's not a question of whether they will face a decision on using drugs, but when, and it's likely a friend will be involved, Rogers warned the students.
"At some point, you will be confronted with the decision to use drugs or to remain drug-free," Rogers said. "You must say no."
Advocates said that providing free drug-testing kits to parents obviously won't be a cure-all. Some parents won't use it.
But they said they're convinced it will help keep some young people from using drugs and help parents spot drug abuse— and get help for their kids— earlier.
"We want to give them as many tools as we can," Hale said.
Hale and her husband John Hale, who were educators in Rockcastle County for many years and now work with the UNITE coalition, both spoke of their son, who struggled with addiction for years before succeeding in recovery and becoming a lawyer.
Joshua Hale was a top student and athlete, but he was hooked before his parents knew it.
"I think it might have made a difference with Josh," Nancy Hale said of the program to provide parents with test kits.
Amelia Eversole, co-president of the UNITE club at Rockcastle County High, said the program will help parents broach a subject that can be awkward.
If enough families participate, it will become an accepted part of the community's efforts to fight drug abuse, she said. "It will make it the norm," Eversole said.
Rebecca Isaacs, director of student services for the school district, said there are parents who want to test their children for drug use but can't afford commercially available kits, so the initiative will help them.
While young people might see the request to take a drug test at home as an indication parents don't trust them, parents can respond that they're not acting out of distrust, but a desire to protect, Hale said.
The kits being distributed use saliva as the test substance and can spot a range of drugs, from marijuana to powerful painkillers such as oxycodone, according to a UNITE release.
Parents can use the kits at home and get results in about 10 minutes.
Supporters said the goal is to help kids, not get them in trouble. The results will not be reported to police or other authorities, such as social workers, and the kits include information on help for families if a young person tests positive.
"This is not a gotcha game," Isaacs said. "It is because we care about them."
A list of places to pick up kits will be available at www.operationunite.org