Mary Evans spent her 21st birthday in front of a room full of strangers, talking about losing the man she loved.
In January, her fiance Chris killed himself while going through withdrawal after a nine-year addiction to prescription pain killers.
Now, Evans is trying to raise awareness about the dangers of prescription medicine abuse, and the havoc it can wreak on families by producing a documentary film about her experience.
She spoke Thursday at a forum at Damascus High School, where she was once a student, that brought together parents and county officials to talk about the issue.
“Instead of going out and having my first legal drink, I’m speaking here,” she said.
Prescription drug abuse has become part of the culture and the party scene for high schoolers, partly because pills are so easy to get ahold of, Evans said.
“They’re so readily available. They’re in their parents’ medicine cabinet,” she said.
To help kids deal with their problems, Evans said she would like to see Damascus and other Montgomery County high schools host Narcotics Anonymous meetings after school.
Montgomery County Public Schools spokesman Dana Tofig said he’s not aware of any schools that currently host such meetings.
The meeting drew about 120 people to the cafeteria at Damascus High.
Gina Patton of Damascus said she’s glad to see people are starting to understand that opiates are being abused at an earlier age.
Too many parents don’t want to believe it could happen to their child — afraid of the stigma that drug abuse carries — and don’t understand the prevalence of the drugs.
“[Prescriptions aren’t] just a back alley drug anymore,” Patton said.
Lea Edgecomb, an 18-year-old from Germantown who was paralyzed from the neck down after using heroin in 2009, talked about the tremendous toll her experience has taken on her mother and sisters.
“I regret trying the heroin every single day of my life,” she said.
The goal of the meeting was to gather information from the community to share with County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and the County Council, said Eric Sterling, co-vice chairman of the county’s Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Advisory Council.
Some of the issues raised would be simple to deal with, while others are more complex, he said.
One of the issues is the number of beds available at treatment centers for Montgomery residents.
According to the county, there are waiting lists of as long as two weeks for people to get into the county’s Avery Road Treatment Center, which provides 14 treatment and detox beds. The advisory council has urged the county to buy the remaining six beds at the facility.
Montgomery is likely to continue to face reduced state funding for drug treatment. In 2011, the county was told $240,000 would be cut from its treatment grant funding of more than $3.9 million, and budget cuts are likely to lead to even less funding in coming years.
Dr. Marc Fishman, medical director for Maryland Treatment Centers, a regional behavioral health care provider that includes various rehabilitation centers, said Thursday that although the ability to treat patients’ severe pain is a wonderful medical ability, doctors have flooded the market through reckless prescribing of opiates.
“Physicians have unfortunately contributed to this problem,” he said.
Parents need to stay engaged with their children and watch for signs of drug experimentation and addiction, such as sharp changes in behavior, abrupt changes of friends and falling grades, he said.
Ultimately, the prescription drug problem isn’t going away, Fishman said.
“We haven’t discovered the cure for addiction .... I don’t know that we ever will in my lifetime,” he said.