SOMERSET – “We’re just this close away from making a big change,” predicted Kathy Hall, holding her thumb and index finger about one inch apart as she spoke. “I feel we’ve got a good start (on collaboration), but we’ve got to expand it.”

Hall, chair of the Pulaski County UNITE Coalition, was one of 13 presenters to address drug-related issues with more than 100 concerned Pulaski County citizens gathered at The Center for Rural Development Thursday.

Hosted by the Kentucky Army National Guard in conjunction with Operation UNITE, the symposium was as much a celebration of successful programs already being offered as it was a call toward greater collaboration and sharing of resources.

Drawing an analogy to the U.S. military’s operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Col. Stephen Hogan noted strong enforcement and eradication won’t be sufficient to root out the “insurgents” peddling drugs.

What is needed, Hogan said, is to engage the needs of the people, build up the confidence of the people, and do what you can to help out of a genuine concern for their well-being.

“At what point will you decide to quit ignoring the issue before you take action? Before you say you’ve had enough?” asked Lt. Col. Karlas Owens. “You have to find the right approach and the right person who will lead the efforts.”

“The drug problem is not harmless,” said Karen Engle, director for UNITE. “Those directly impacted by substance abuse already know about it’s devastating effects, but until we encounter the issue first-hand we don’t react with the same urgency.”

“Everybody here today understands that something must be done and are trying to be a catalyst for change,” Engle continued. “What has been lacking is a way to expand the capabilities by working closer together.”

Six specific recommendations were made during the symposium to guide participants beyond this week’s conversation:

• Identify those at-risk and lead them away from harmful associations.

• Minister to those who have already fallen victim to the powerful forces of drug addiction.

• Cooperate with law enforcement by being willing to report suspected illegal activities.

• Vote for political representatives who share their concerns about problems caused by drugs.

• Multiply the number of folks involved in anti-drug efforts by asking for assistance and facilitating involvement.

• Make noise! Don’t silently sit by on the sidelines and pretend you are not impacted by drugs.

“One in 12 people over the age of 12 say they use drugs at least once a month,” Hogan said, citing national drug statistics. Drugs cost our nation $215 billion a year and account for more than 52,000 deaths annually – almost the number of names on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.

And, Hogan continued, the problem is worse in Kentucky – which leads the country in prescription pill abuse and is third in marijuana and methamphetamine production and use.

“In every church there are hurting people,” said Mark Harrell, pastor of Victory Christian Fellowship, which has taken the lead to implement a family transformation program developed by Focus on the Family. “What we need help in … is (for people) to come alive with the passion to help other people.”

The problem is not the addicts, corruption, or the criminal activity associated with substance abuse, noted Doug Abner, pastor of the Community Church of Manchester. “The problem is good people sitting back and doing nothing.”

It’s time to reach out beyond the church walls and work together to effect change before drugs take a heavy toll on the community, Abner said.

That effort, said Commonwealth’s Attorney Eddy Montgomery, must address environmental, educational and social issues that place people at-risk for drug use. It is almost too late by the time a person enters the court system, he said.

Part of the problem, noted Dr. Michael Citak, chief medical officer for Lake Cumberland Regional Hospital, is that medical professionals are caught between trying to do the right thing for their patients while trying to avoid the “subjective” nature of pain management and addicts who are well versed at playing the system.

“KASPER is one of the best tools to monitor what is going on,” Citak said, referring to the Kentucky All-Schedule Prescription Electronic Reporting system, considered a model for the nation. Unfortunately, only about one-third of the doctors in the state are utilizing this valuable resource.

“There’s a solution to the drug problem sitting in this room today,” noted Carlos Cameron, UNITE coalition coordinator for Pulaski County. “We all have a stake in this battle.”

Hall noted that Pulaski County already actively supports a variety of youth programs, has created a medical advisory committee, is working to involve the faith-based community, and provides both support and treatment for addicts and their families.

“We need to now is to combine our resources and identify gaps and overlaps,” Hall said. “We need to make effective use of our dollars to maximize the impact on the community.”

If you would like to become involved in any aspect of the anti-drug effort contact Hall at 606-678-2673, 606-219-6218, or by e-mail to kathy.hall The coalition meets 5:30 p.m. on the second Tuesday of each month at Rocky Hollow Park.