LONDON – Communities “breaking down silos” to effectively tackle the region’s drug problem can’t be underestimated, the nation’s top drug official said Wednesday during a visit to southern Kentucky.

“You can really see and really feel the power of people working together, trying to make sure young people aren’t involved in drugs,” noted Gil Kerlikowske, White House Director for Drug Policy. “The important part is that so many community groups are working together and don’t have barriers.”

Kerlikowske’s remarks came during a “Rising Above” celebration dinner hosted by Operation UNITE at the London Community Center.

To view photos from Director Kerlikowske’s visits in Laurel and Pike counties – click here.

More than 375 people representing coalitions from across southern and eastern Kentucky attended to hear Kerlikowske speak about the nation’s efforts to combat substance abuse – particularly strategies dealing with prescription drug abuse and diversion – and to help honor those whose leadership efforts inspire and motivate others.

Also on hand for the program was U.S. Congressman Harold “Hal” Rogers, who created UNITE in 2003 in response to an epidemic prescription drug problem raging in his 29-county Fifth Congressional District.

“We are at ground zero. Our backyard is the battleground of the drug epidemic,” Rogers said. “You can’t turn on the six o’clock news or pick up your morning paper without seeing a story about meth labs or drug-related crimes.”

“At the same time,” Rogers continued, “adversity is being harnessed into hope. UNITE volunteers have stood up and said: ‘Enough!’ We are taking back our communities here and now.”

“We are doing our part through law enforcement, treatment and education, but it’s not enough,” Rogers said. “We need the full attention of (the Office of National Drug Control Policy) to get involved with us and walk shoulder to shoulder with us in this fight.”

Prior to the dinner, Kerlikowske, Rogers and UNITE Director Karen Kelly participated in a roundtable discussion with 20 leaders from UNITE coalitions to share details about the grass-roots efforts being conducted across the region and concerns about how funding cuts could cripple progress and stifle hope.

Participants in the roundtable were: Doug Abner (Clay County), Dr. Bruce Ayres (Harlan County), Ken Bolin (Clay County), Donnie Caldwell (Bell County), Kara Canterberry (Rockcastle County), Charley Dixon (Knox County), Lori Franklin (Menifee County), John Hale (Rockcastle County), Kathy Hall (Pulaski County), Eddie Hazlett (Johnson County), Carolyn Isaac (Magoffin County), Braxton King (McCreary County), Lola Patterson (Knott County), Jeff Sheppard (Laurel County), Marilyn Slone (Rowan County), Sharon Tharp (Morgan County), Mike Vance (Floyd County) and Darlys Warren (Laurel County).

“We are not denying we have a problem – we laid our problems out on the table, on display for the nation to see,” Rogers said. “But Director Kerlikowske, we want you to understand we have a capable and willing army that stands ready to fight this battle.”

“I view Operation UNITE as a national model. It can be copied in any region of our country where communities are willing to work for a better future – like we have here,” Rogers added. “UNITE is reshaping our future generations and the way they think about drug abuse, and it’s working.”

Kerlikowske, who has served as director for the Office of National Drug Control Policy since May 2009 and coordinates all aspects of federal drug control programs and implementation of the president’s national drug control strategy, said substance abuse knows no boundary.

He hailed the three-pronged efforts of UNITE – investigations, treatment and education – as being a model for other areas of the country being hit hard by prescription drug abuse, and praised the spirit of “people so committed and willing to work together” for a common cause.

The celebration also included presentation of 14 awards to individuals or groups who have risen above to inspire leadership, purpose and passion in the region, a presentation by the Rockcastle County High School “UNITE Presents” drama club, singing of the National Anthem by Nancy Jane Jackson, Pledge of Allegiance by Courtney Owens, and a special announcement by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC).

Noting that substance abuse can have a negative impact upon the economic growth in communities, ARC Federal Co-Chair Earl Gohl announced that $275,000 in grants would be made available within the ARC’s 13-county service region. UNITE Coalitions will be able to apply for up to $5,000 for technical assistance in planning of local anti-drug prevention programs and activities.

Rising Above leadership awards

Receiving the “Rising Above” leadership awards (click on links to read details) were: Monticello Police Chief Ralph Miniard, Letcher County Sheriff Danny Webb, Kentucky State Police Det. Chris Fugate, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration’s London Residence Agency office, Clay County Transformation Project, Harlan County’s Hooked On Fishing-Not On Drugs program at Martin’s Fork Lake, the Knott Drug Abuse Council for pushing a pain clinic ordinance, the Knox County UNITE Coalition, Menifee County Coalition Vice-Chair Lori Franklin, Magoffin County ASAP/Drug-Free Communities director Carolyn Isaac, Rockcastle County Coalition Chair John Hale, McCreary County Coalition member Brandi Copenhaver, The Lord’s Gym of McCreary County Director Braxton King and Wayne County Deputy Jailer Rick Kempton.

Laurel County was the second stop in a four-day tour that began in Louisville February 22 and concludes in West Virginia. He was slated to meet with medical professionals in Pikeville Thursday afternoon.

During a stop in Louisville Tuesday, Kerlikowske echoed Congressman Rogers’ plea for Florida Gov. Rick Scott to rethink his decision not to implement that state’s prescription-monitoring program. The Florida legislation was enacted more than a year ago but has yet to be implemented.

Florida is “a direct pipeline to pills being supplied here in Kentucky and is directly responsible for the deaths of people here in Kentucky,” Kerlikowske told a group at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear and Attorney General Jack Conway have also asked Scott to reverse course, noting that as much as 60 percent of the prescription pills being sold illegally in the state run through this pipeline.

In October 2009, UNITE participated with federal, state and local agencies in “Operation Flamingo Road” targeting more than 500 people involved in the interstate trafficking thousands of prescription pills. It was the largest drug roundup in Kentucky’s history.

“People don’t recognize that prescription drugs can kill you,” Kerlikowske said. “They don’t recognize that prescription drugs are highly addictive. They often think they’re safe because, after all, it’s just a prescription.”

Prescription drug abuse results in 82 deaths per month in Kentucky – more than perish in car crashes.

Kerlikowske, in an interview with FOX News’ John Roberts, acknowledged the country has been slow in recognizing the severity of the problem.

“Sometimes we, as a country, we only have a certain capacity for understanding those really complex issues, and this was one that I truly believe was a bit under the radar screen,” Kerlikowske said. “But, now it is really out there in front of everyone.”

Accompanying Kerlikowske during his swing through Kentucky were representatives from the congressional offices of Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY), Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-CA), Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL).