STATE OF AFFAIRS: For New Head of Kentucky’s UNITE, State Drug Battle is Personal
March 12th, 2015 | By Brian Sullivan
LONDON, Kentucky – The home of the Mammoth Cave and Churchill Downs, the Bluegrass State has a lot to be proud of. But lurking behind medicine cabinets in well-to-do neighborhoods and behind the concession stands at the local high school games lies a predator poised to devour the state. Just this week, two law firms have filed a federal lawsuit against the state for their practice of refusing medical treatment to jailed opiate addicts. The suit argues that in many cases, prisoners have not been administered drugs like Suboxone and Methadone (both used to treat opiate addiction). Addiction Campuses experts have held strong on their stance that jail, unaccompanied by treatment, does not correct nor prevent addiction and the crimes associated with the disease. That’s not a political debate, it’s a fact. But in order to present the magnitude of Kentucky’s addiction problem, we must go to the beginnings of the epidemic: homes, schools and churches.
The city of London is home base to UNITE, an organization with a 3-pronged approach of assisting law enforcement, treatment referral and education. Created in 2003 by Republican Representative Hal Rogers of the 5th Congressional District for the state after a series of articles published in newspapers highlighting Kentucky’s epidemic, UNITE’s main goals are to keep people from using drugs, and help people who are on them. It is an acronym standing for Unlawful Narcotics Investigations Treatment and Education. The grassroots group now has over 32 coalitions and 87,000 students involved in drug-free programs at their local schools. Further, they’ve established 32 drop boxes throughout the state for prescription pain meds. We sat down with the organization’s new President and CEO Nancy Hale just 4 weeks into the job to talk about the biggest problems this state is facing.
“Heroin is a big problem,” says Hale. “We are seeing a great deal of heroin overdoses.”
The heroin complication is similar to other states in that it usually starts with prescription drug abuse, but different in the sense that, in Kentucky, prescription painkillers are readily available.
“Prescription pills, marijuana and alcohol are our most abused drugs in the state,” says Hale.
UNITE has devised a mobile prevention trailer called “On the Move”, which travels to various schools and events educating students on the dangers of drug abuse.
“Synthetic drugs are very cheap, and heroin is readily accessible,” says Hale. “You can get 1/10 gram bag for $5 and it’s so deadly. We’ve also seen heroin in a pill form.”
S.I.D.N.E., or Simulated Impaired Driving Experience, uses go-karts and impaired vision goggles to educate children on the dangers of alcohol abuse.
Currently, the state has several bills being mulled over in the legislature, including a needle exchange program. Lawmakers have been studying Ohio’s “Prevention not Permission” program to cut down on the spread of diseases like Hepatitis C spreading due to the heroin epidemic. The program allows users to bring in dirty needles and exchange them for clean ones with no threat of prosecution. Another bill aims to toughen sentences on first-time heroin offenders from a Class D felony to Class C, which would increase sentences from 1-5 years to 5-10 years. Critics say it will cost the state money with little effect on crime.
UNITE, much like other state-funded programs in the U.S., has seen its share of financial cuts.
“When it happens, we prioritize,” says Hale. “We do the best we can with what we have to work with.”
Hale says a lot of the help comes through volunteers that help their program. A service vital to the education and prevention of drug abuse. And it was talking about those families and volunteers that Hale revealed her own family’s struggle with the infectious drug epidemic.
“We lived in Rock Castle,” says Hale. “I was a teacher and my husband John was a principal.”
Hale says their son Joshua was a star athlete, straight A student and attended church every time the door was open. The offspring of a well respected family in the community, Joshua was quarterback for the local high school.
“Two weeks before the high school was to go to state championships for the very first time, Joshua came down with the flu,” says Hale.
The doctor prescribed the pain reliever hydrocodone and treated the flu, and Joshua was able to go compete. A couple of weeks later, he had to go to the dentist and get his wisdom teeth pulled, and was prescribed more pain medicine. Gradually, Joshua graduated to oxycontin and had started buying it on the streets. When Josh’s parents found out about it, they immediately sought out solutions. Most families find this can be humiliating in a town where everyone knows your name and you are in the public eye. But for John and Nancy, it was about finding solutions to help their child.
“The more we found out the more common we realized the problem was,” says Hale. “The county coroner was telling us he was getting one person a week lost to drugs. In a town of 16,000 we were losing a whole generation.”
Oxycontin was Joshua’s drug of choice. In 2010 nearly 200,000 emergency room visits in the U.S. were due to the misuse of oxycodone based drugs. But the Hales didn’t give up.
“We didn’t know if he was going to make it,” says Hale. “There were arrests, relapses, but we knew we had to be open and honest about it.”
Hale says it was that openness and honesty that opened a lot of parents’ eyes. If it could happen to the Hales, it could happen to any of them. This eventually compelled Nancy to fight drug abuse as a career.
“If you look at the statistics for drug abuse, the average age a person tries drugs for the first time now is 11,” says Hale. “To see the devastation and horrible impact on families is even more compelling for us to fight. There IS hope. And we will KEEP fighting.”
Joshua won his battle with prescription drug abuse and is now a happily married attorney. His name is etched on UNITE’s Wall of Hope, displaying people who have beat the disease of addiction. Hale says that while memorials are necessary, they wanted to put hope on display. It holds the names of the men and women of Kentucky who are in recovery from addictions.
Since 2005, UNITE has provided 3500 people with $5000 vouchers for treatment. They are now working on a new initiative called “Give Me a Reason”, to offer free saliva-based drug tests to parents. It’s namesake means to give your parents a reason to trust you. If you’re not doing drugs, you should have no problem taking the test.
“If you read the story of Harry Potter, there’s a moment when Harry wants to give up and says he’ll never be able to defeat the enemy,” says Hale. “Professor Dumbledore says to him ‘No Harry. But you keep on fighting and fighting and fighting to keep the evil at bay.’ It’s devastating and frightening, but we know there’s hope. That’s what we will do in Kentucky. We will keep fighting and fighting and fighting to keep it at bay.”
Nancy Hale, President and CEO, Operation UNITE
Nancy Hale retired from public education in 2012 after 34 years as a teacher, career counselor, and administrative coordinator. That fall she joined Operation UNITE as Co-Program Director for the UNITE Service Corps (AmeriCorps) Program. Very involved in her community, Ms. Hale has served as an Executive Board Member and volunteer with the Rockcastle County (KY) UNITE Coalition for the last 10 years, with the Kentucky YMCA Youth Association for 25 years, as well as a current Board Member and twice-elected President of the Kentucky Association of Professional Educators. As a member of the Delta Kappa Gamma Society, Pi Chapter, Ms. Hale was named “Kentucky Volunteer of the Year” in 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2004. She received the “Golden Apple Achiever Award” from Ashland Oil, Inc. in 2000 as one of Kentucky’s outstanding educators. In 2001, she was chosen as the “Kentucky YMCA Champion,” and was the first inductee into the Kentucky YMCA Youth Advisor Hall of Fame in 2010. She and her husband, John, also an educator and principal for 42 years, are the parents of two grown sons and have two granddaughters.
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