Approximatly 30 concerned residents attended a meeting of Operation UNITE on Tuesday at the Harlan campus of Southeast Community College.
UNITE (Unlawful Narcotics Investigation Treatment & Education) is a government-funded program based in Somerset, serving 29 counties in southern and eastern Kentucky with the goal of bringing communities together to fight the growing drug epidemic in the area. The program focuses on three main areas: law enforcement (investigations), drug treatment programs and education.
Harlan's UNITE branch is comprised of multiple committees focusing on different aspects of fighting the drug problem.
"One of our main tasks in the next month or so is to come up with a project or projects from each committee and let UNITE know what we need," said Mike Allison at the opening of the meeting.
Field director Danielle Wells spoke of several successful projects in other counties, including a recent march in Clay County. Plans for a similar march at the end of the summer for the entire Big Sandy region are in progress. The organization also plans to do neighborhood watch training and make efforts to involve local churches in its anti-drug efforts.
The regional director from the Cumberland River Comprehensive Care Center in Corbin spoke at length about drug treatment facilities. He stressed the need for "tough love" and a change of environment for recovering addicts and pointed out the need for separate treatment facilities for men and women. He also said patients at the center are getting younger with the average age dropping from 35 to 26.
The Comprehensive Care Center in Corbin accepts patients from all over the area and the waiting list can be up to six weeks. Cost is based on the ability to pay, and insurance often helps with payment.
One project already put into motion by UNITE funding is Harlan County's drug court. The court provides a separate system for drug-related cases with a focus on treatment as well as punishment.
Several residents spoke up with their ideas about fighting drug use and shared experiences. Some present spoke of how drug abuse affected their own lives, and those of family members. Others voiced frustrations about the availability of jobs to recovering addicts, blaming in part the poor economy for the rise in substance abuse in the area. The discussion prompted plans for a meeting next month to include an open forum.
UNITE is currently looking to expand and add members to its committees.