When Sunny Cloud discovered her own son's drug habit she invented a do-it-yourself dope-testing kit now being snapped up by worried parents all over America. But not everyone approves, says Tim Cornwell
One Sunday afternoon in 1993, Sunny Cloud came home unexpectedly to find her teenaged son smoking a joint in the sitting room of their home in Atlanta, Georgia. There had been no suspicions, she says, on the day she returned early from a real estate agents' meeting to find the house reeking of pot and her son, then 15, in the middle of it.

When the shock wore off, Mrs Cloud took him to the emergency room of a local hospital. It was a humiliating and painful experience for them both, she said. A nurse called out "It's time for your drug test", and gave her son a cup. While he went to the bathroom, she was handed a bill for $100. The results confirmed the obvious.

Mrs Cloud, 47, lives in a middle-class neighbourhood, drives an old car, has two dogs and two kids, who enrolled in a perfectly good local state school. "I'm like every other parent in this country," she said. "It's not like I wasn't home, or I didn't give them my attention, or a good upbringing."

She worked most of her life as a high-school teacher, taking extra jobs in vacations to make extra cash, then left the profession in 1990 to try to make a better living selling insurance. Although she divorced her husband in 1982, and the children see him rarely, it is part of her credo that she is an absolutely normal parent, nobody special, with nothing to feel guilty for. As a teacher - she graduated from a small college in Missouri in 1971 - the drugs episode left her feeling remarkably naive. "I think the whole world went past us. There wasn't a sexual revolution, a drug revolution," she said. "I worked my way through school, and I missed that whole scene."

Her son claimed it was the first time he had taken pot, but later admitted to having used it for a year. In a familiar story, she had shrugged off the danger signs: he seldom ate dinner with the family, frequently retreated to his room, and spent more and more time away from home. She suspected he was smoking cigarettes, but he said the smell on his clothing was second- hand smoke. Only in retrospect did she realise that the bottles of eyedrops in his room were used to keep the redness in his eyes from becoming obvious. His school grades had nose-dived.

Three years on, she describes the experience as good for both of them. Left with the knowledge that an unknown doctor had entered a drug test into her son's medical records, she immediately began researching a means to carry out the test in private at home - to work out a way other parents could avoid the same embarrassing ordeal. She has emerged as a pioneer of home drug tests in which parents must collect a urine sample from their child. For $40, her shoestring company, Parents Alert Inc, provides a plastic cup with a lid, two saliva sample strips and a mailing box addressed to the laboratory she has contracted to test for a host of drugs, from marijuana to PCP, heroin and cocaine, with alcohol included at the parent's request. Mrs Cloud has sold 1,200 kits so far.

She was working quietly, without much fuss or profit, until home drug testing suddenly became an election issue last month. Republicans accused bureaucrats in the US Government's Food and Drug Administration of trampling parental rights when it said her packages should be regulated as a medical device. FDA officials were reportedly worried by issues such as confidentiality, possible coercion and "family discord". With Bob Dole claiming that the White House has turned a blind eye to the drug problem, it seemed a potent issue. Al Gore used the televised Vice Presidential debate to promise that the Clinton administration would remove the hurdles to home testing.

The controversy has had the Parents' Alert phone ringing off the hook with orders and calls from reporters. There are at least two other US companies that offer home drug testing. Psychemedic Inc, of Cambridge, Massachusetts tests for drug use going back weeks or months from a lock of hair. While most of the company's business is workplace testing for corporate customers, it brought out the home version, PDT-90, in response to calls from interested parents, and says it is selling well. A New Jersey company offers DrugAlert, a variant on the pap smear test, where parents can merely wipe a moistened pad across three or four surfaces the child has touched. In a week it promises "the knowledge you need to protect those you love".

Child psychiatrists and children's advocacy groups have raised warning flags. Rick McDevitt, president of the Georgia Alliance for Children, said home testing "does nothing more than satisfy the curiosity of suspicious and paranoid parents". Others says it is confrontational and intrusive, and that this sort of snooping can lead to the breakdown of trust, driving a troubled child deeper into depression and estrangement.

Mrs Cloud disagrees. She argues that her own test cannot, like the others, be carried out in secret, and can actually open up the relationship, as it did with her own son. She says children themselves have called her, and say "would you please call my mum and tell her about this drug test - I want to take one and prove I'm not doing drugs". She cites the case of one customer, a mother who had a suspicion but wasn't sure. "Before the specimen was even sent to the laboratory the child confessed to sniffing heroin. The parent was dumbfounded. She wasn't crying, she was scared. I know she is very, very thankful. I feel like she thinks we've saved her kids."

Her son is now a 19-year-old college student making a B average grade. She earns most of her money consulting on substance abuse training and workplace testing. After they went through joint counselling and drug awareness sessions, he tested positive one more time at home, but negative after that. He is now a "totally different person", she said. "He has turned into a very nice young man and one of my best friends."

Recent surveys suggest drug use is rising among American teenagers after falling in the late 1980s. Between a quarter and a third of high school students say they have smoked marijuana in the past year. According to one survey in Georgia, nearly one in five claim to use an illicit drug once a week. Mrs Cloud says the threat of the test alone can shift the balance of power to parents, and allow them to lay down a no-drug policy at home as the government, a school, or employer can. It can give their children an excuse to buck peer pressure to do drugs. "Parents should understand that if you have a child, you have a child at risk," she said. "And if they don't co-operate, you pretty much have an answer already, don't you?

"Parents will do strange things when they think their kids are in trouble. I think they feel they have no control in their children's lives. The vast majority want to regain that control."