Baltimore County is about to unveil its latest weapon in the war on drugs: instant drug testing for children.
The Baltimore County Bureau of Substance Abuse will begin a pilot program this week that will let parents know within minutes if their child has taken drugs and, if so, provide immediate counseling.
It is the first government program in Maryland to offer such a service, and it is being launched in a county where more than half of all high school seniors admit to having used an illegal drug at least once. And it might become a model for similar efforts statewide.
"We intend to follow the program's progress and, if it's successful, to what extent it might be replicated in other areas of the state," said Thomas W. Davis, director of the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's alcohol and drug abuse administration.
Michael M. Gimbel, director of the county substance abuse bureau, said that most commercial drug test kits must be sent to a lab and that results generally aren't available for a week or 10 days. Results are often given over the telephone -- sometimes with counseling over the phone.
Gimbel said telephone counseling is not as effective as having a therapist in the room to help deal with the problem.
"By having a counselor there, you have someone in the room who knows how to deal with a positive result, how to handle a family in crisis," Gimbel said. "If a parent gets results and they're positive, they don't necessarily know what to do."
The benefit of having a counselor was evident last week when a seventh-grader expelled from Pine Grove Middle School in Carney for possessing marijuana showed up with his mother at the bureau's drug counseling center in Timonium to be tested.
The mother, who asked that her name not be used, said her 12-year-old son has admitted to experimenting with marijuana in the past. But she is convinced that her son was only holding a small amount of marijuana for another pupil who took it home and smoked it.
'I told you so'
The youth and his mother were interviewed by counselor Jacqueline Foreman, and the boy filled out an extensive questionnaire. He was then brought into Foreman's office, where he and his mother were presented with a plastic cup.
"Here, I think you know what to do," Foreman said, handing the cup to the boy.
When the youth came back a few minutes later, Foreman, wearing surgical gloves, twisted the cap onto the cup until it gave a few clicks, which started the testing process. The cup includes a tiny thermometer to prove that the urine is at body temperature and just provided.
Within a few minutes, two bars began appearing next to the labels for each of six drug categories, showing that the boy was drug-free.
The youth showed no signs of surprise as he turned to his mother.
"I told you so," he said.
FDA officials say there are at least a half-dozen such "rapid result drug test kits" being marketed for use by emergency rooms, personnel departments, parole boards, public safety officials, transit agencies and others.
Most of them, including the one being used by Baltimore County, are restricted to use by doctors and counselors working under a doctor's supervision, said Sharon Snider, a spokeswoman for the Food and Drug Administration.
Gimbel came up with the idea for the Baltimore County program about six months ago, when a sales representative for Point of Care Technologies of Rockville visited his office with the company's version of a urine-based drug test.
As a drug counselor and administrator for 18 years, Gimbel had seen his share of such kits. He liked this one -- called the Genie Cup -- because it offered immediate results.
"If someone has to wait five to seven days, anything could happen. The child could run away. There could be violence in the home or wherever people get their results," Gimbel said.
Gimbel calls the program PASS, an acronym for Prompt Adolescent Substance-abuse Screening. It will be available to the public starting this week at the offices of the bureau's Northern Area Treatment Program, 2 W. Aylesbury Road in Timonium, and the Eastern Area Treatment Program, 9100 Franklin Square Drive in Rosedale.
Drug counselors will be available at the centers during office hours and three nights a week, and appointments will be made within 24 hours of a parent's phone call, Gimbel said.
Gimbel said no parents will be turned away for an inability to pay, but a $50 break-even fee helps pay for the staff time and for the cups, being supplied to the county at a discount by Point of Care Technologies, the Rockville manufacturer.
"Every kid is vulnerable right now, and if this gives parents a way to feel comfortable that their kids are clean, then it will be well worth it," Gimbel said.
Gimbel's office performs about 300 drug assessments a year on youths who must complete a mandatory drug counseling program because they have been expelled from school for drugs or ordered to drug treatment by juvenile courts.
Gimbel said PASS is intended for parents who want to bring their children in voluntarily, whether they are in trouble or headed that way.
Spokesmen for Point of Care Technologies say they probably will use the results of the Baltimore County program to help sell their product, but say the 3-year-old company is performing a public service.
What makes the company's product unique, spokesmen say, is that it can test for six categories of drugs, that the counselor needs only to twist a tightly sealed cap for the results and that the sealed cup makes for a clean testing process.
"Every other drug test you have additional steps, you either have to tilt the cup, or stick a card into the cup to get a reading. With this, all you do is seal the cap," said Michael R. Pratt, president and chief executive officer of Point of Care Technologies.
95 percent accurate
The Genie Cup, approved by the FDA in July, is about 95 percent accurate, and positive test results should be confirmed with more thorough clinical laboratory tests, he said.
Gimbel said it will be up to the parents to decide if they want a follow-up test at a lab to confirm a positive result.
He said that one problem with all drug testing is that for the most part, the tests offer only a "snapshot" of what the person taking it recently consumed. Most narcotics will stay in the bloodstream for only 72 hours, he said, but marijuana remains detectable for up to three weeks.
Gimbel has ordered 300 Genie Cups from Point of Care Technologies, at a discount price of about $3 a cup. He acknowledges that he has no idea how many parents will call for appointments.
"We could get 300 in a week, we could get a lot less than that. We have no way of knowing if this thing will take off or not," he said.
In a society where about half of all high school seniors acknowledge in surveys trying marijuana, sales of home drug test kits have been brisk.
Another manufacturer of such tests, Phamatech, of San Diego, has sold about 1,000 of its QuickScreen at Home Drug Tests since the FDA approved the test for sale in October, according to Lorraine Cogan, a Phamatech spokeswoman.
"It's the kind of product that generates a lot of interest," Cogan said.
The number to call for appointments for Baltimore County's PASS adolescent drug testing program is 410-887-7671.
Pub Date: 1/25/99