Commander David Gillespie of the 5th District – Germantown was among the speakers at the “Lights of Hope” event held in Rockville on Saturday night. The “Lights of Hope” recovery celebration raised awareness for the need for greater school-based programs to support County students with substance use and other behavioral health disorders.
During the event on Saturday night, Rockville Town Square vibrated with the chatter of people, noise from the restaurants, and sounds from the band, Just Stones. In the midst of the bubbling activity of everyday life, a message was emphatically impressed on everyone present — end the stigma of addiction by heightening community awareness and celebrate recovery.
According to the Montgomery County Opioid Misuse Prevention Program Community Needs Assessment (2015), 17 percent of 12th graders reported misusing prescription opiates, while 7.4 percent of students over 17 reported heroin use. A recent study (JAMA Psychiatry, 2014) on heroin users found that the average age of first use is 22 years old, although 75 percent were already addicted to or used prescription opioids first. Many parents agree that drug and alcohol dependence often starts in high school, and some report as early as middle school.
After mentioning that he is a father of three, Commander Dave Gillespie of the 5th District Montgomery County Police spoke, “We can’t control what our children do. We can’t control the decisions they make. We also understand that this could happen to anybody. So we know, and we learned over the years that arresting people who are addicted to drugs is not the answer. We have worked with other people in social service agencies and continue to work together to be able to provide compassion and support to give people treatment.”
“Today we had an overdose. Last night we had an overdose,” continued Gillespie, “In fact, in this County we’ve had about 90 something overdoses this year that were nonfatal and about 30 that were fatal. That’s a change. The fire department is using NARCAN at least 30 times a month, if not more. This is something that impacts all of us.”
Parents of kids who are struggling or have struggled with drug or alcohol dependence were participating in the “Lights of Hope” recovery celebration.
Donna Evans, mother of five, says not enough is being done in the schools to alert parents to the dangers of prescription opioids, “I get the flyer alerting me to be on the lookout for head lice every year, and what to do if I see the signs. But my daughter has lost nearly a dozen friends to opiate overdose in the past few years and the school isn’t sending home any information on the dangers of prescription painkillers. Our kids are not dying of head lice.”
Chris Shank, Chief Legislative Officer for the Hogan administration, was the keynote speaker at the event. Shank was instrumental in getting Maryland’s Justice Reinvestment Act (JRA) passed during the 2016 legislative session. “Addiction is a disease, and should be treated accordingly within the criminal justice system," said Christopher Shank. "Governor Hogan has said that he would use every resource necessary to combat Maryland's heroin and opioid crisis. We, in the administration, have made it our goal to do everything we can to get those struggling with addiction on the road to recovery."
This landmark legislation does just what Lisa Lowe, Founder of Heroin Action Coalition, and other advocates want — diverts those with low-level non-violent drug offenses to treatment rather than jail. According to Lowe, "it is high time that drug dependence is recognized as a healthcare issue, rather than a criminal justice issue.”
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that less than 1 in 10 individuals struggling with a substance use disorder receive the help they need when they need it. Lowe founded Heroin Action Coalition six years ago in order to provide resources to families seeking treatment for their child and to bring about policy changes that would create a better system of care for those struggling with Substance Use Disorder and the families who are impacted by it.
“Without adequate resources for our kids and young adults, it is often a parent or other family member who takes on the role of treatment provider, case manager, recovery coach, and relapse prevention coordinator. Parents are often ill-equipped to shoulder this responsibility, and it takes an enormous toll on the family — both emotionally and financially,” explains Lowe. “Without sufficient and affordable high-quality treatment and recovery services –the jails, emergency rooms and morgues are inevitably where our kids end up.”
Assistant States Attorney for Montgomery County, Steve Chaikin, was also one of the speakers at Saturday’s “Lights of Hope” event, talked about the importance of Maryland’s Good Samaritan Law — recent legislation designed to provide immunity from prosecution for possession and paraphernalia charges for those who witness an overdose and call for help. According to Chaikin, “this is a life-saving measure.” Some kids lose their lives unnecessarily because of their friends — fearing years of incarceration, are too scared to call emergency services after the friend becomes unresponsiveness while using drugs or alcohol. “We recognize that government has a compelling interest to protect the lives of citizens rather than focus on arresting persons trying to help save someone’s life in a medical emergency,” says Chaikin.
“Many people don’t get that this is something that everyone needs to be concerned about,” explains Lowe. “We know that for every $1 spent on treatment, taxpayers save $12 in criminal justice and health care costs. Diverting funds from our justice system to our health care system to address a very treatable neurological disorder simply makes sense."
Lynda Hudmon, a member of The Addict’s Mom (TAM), a support group for parents who have lost children to addiction, spoke to the difficulties recovering addicts, and their families can often face.
“I asked my son,” said Hudmon, “‘If you don’t survive, can I speak the truth about it to help others?’ and he agreed. I made a promise to him that I would never disrespect his memory. I made the same promise later to fiercely loyal friends who did not wish for him to be remembered for his struggles, but for the kind, giving, and smart person that he was.”
During the last year of her son AJ’s life, he was granted probation with drug testing by a compassionate judge and experienced sobriety. He returned to his childhood faith, was promoted at work, saved a co-worker's life, and fell in love. “He would help anyone. As a typical example, in the last week of his life he gave away his only spare tire to a stranded stranger.” explained his mom.
In expressing her gratitude to those members of the community who contributed to her son’s last year of life — a year that the family cherishes and holds close to their hearts — Hudmon emphasized her appreciation for those in Montgomery County’s Fire and Rescue Services, “But most of all I want to take this time to thank the first responders who came to our aid and saved our son’s life five times over. We will always be grateful for that last precious year with our son.”
Joining the supportive parents and those in recovery, all of the first responders in attendance lined the front of the stage and lit candles to show support. White candle for those in recovery, a red candle for those still struggling, and a black candle to remember those who have been lost.
Organizers hope that this event will spur other communities in Maryland to plan similar rallies to begin a conversation to make the changes necessary to defeat substance abuse and also that they will get the attention of elected leaders. They want to heighten community awareness and highlight the need for increased prevention, treatment, and recovery services.
“We are trying to shine a light on the problem,” explained Rita Tonner who lost her son to addiction. “We want to emphasize the fact that these are not people who are simply making poor choices, but they are people with a neurological brain-based disorder, that is so very difficult for them to overcome on their own. They need more support and more services than are currently available. Their families need resources, too.”
A closing message emphasized how in reality things are not clearly defined in black and white. Each person’s struggle is personal and unique. Those standing in Town Square after 9:00 pm on a Saturday night were left with the words, “Shatter the stigma. End the silence.”
Note: Portions of this report were originally published by Rockville View. Used with permission.
Top: Commander David Gillespie, of the 5th District-Germantown, was among the speakers at the Lights of Hope event held in Rockville on Saturday night. The event was held to promote awareness to end the stigma of addiction by heightening community awareness and celebrate recovery. Photo by Rockville View.
Next: Chris Shank, Chief Legislative Officer for the Hogan administration, speaking at the Lights of Hope event. Photo by Mark Poetker.
Next: Assistant States Attorney for Montgomery County, Steve Chaikin speaking at the Lights of Hope event. Photo by Mark Poetker.
Video: Heroin, “The Quiet Epidemic” a new County Report recently published by the Montgomery County Council and CCM-TV reporter Susan Kenedy.
Next: Lynda Hudmon, a member of The Addict’s Mom, a support group for parents who have lost children to addiction spoke to the difficulties recovering addicts and their families, can often face. Photo by Mark Poetker.
Video: “Heroin - The Latest Challenge for Montgomery County Police” a video by Susan Kenedy of MMC-TVfeaturing 5th District MCPD Sargent Jason Cokinos talking about the challenges that Heroin poses to Montgomery County, specifically in the UpCounty,-Germantown/Clarksburg/Damascus area.
Next: First responders from MCFRS and MCPD hold candles while being honored at the Lights of Hope event in Rockville on Saturday night. Photo by Rockville View.