More than 200 people gathered at the Great Hall of Flags in the Statehouse yesterday to discuss the fight against drug abuse and to listen to true stories about the grip of addiction.
Peabody's Joel Levine, son of former Salem Superintendent Herb Levine, was featured prominently in a DVD created by health reporter Jeanne Blake of Gloucester. Professionals from law enforcement, government and education watched the DVD, which details the young Levine's descent into drug addiction.
"I had tried the good guy image," Levine says on the DVD. "And I wanted to try something different." Still an adolescent, he moved progressively from alcohol to marijuana to prescription drugs and then heroin. Hiding all this from his parents became a way of life.
And when he attempted, on his own, to break his habit, "I felt like I was at the gates of hell."
But once his parents learned of his addiction, the deception had only begun. In re-created scenes, shot in blurry black and white, viewers watched his mother, Susan, shining a flashlight into Joel's mouth, trying to ensure that he swallowed a pill designed to defeat the effects of the drug.
"As much as I thought I knew," said Herb Levine, a highly trained educator, "I didn't know anything."
The addiction strained the entire family. Joel's sister, Jillian, discovered his problem but was so torn over whether she should tell that it led to painful symptoms. "I still live with the regret of not having told on my brother," she said with emotion. "What if he had died? How would I feel then?"
The DVD and a booklet, "Words Can Work," tell several stories about drugs - including Joel's experience. They are available to individuals, schools and employee-assistance programs at wordscanwork.com. Blake, who produced the DVD, believes that real stories told by real people will have the strongest impact in cautioning would-be abusers.
Speakers at the forum included the newly appointed state commissioner of health, John Auerbach, assistant commissioner Michael Botticelli, Richard Falzone of McLean Hospital and Drug Enforcement Agency agent June Stansbury.
"The level of addiction in Massachusetts is through the roof," state Sen. Steven Tolman said.
Businessman Jim Bildner of Manchester, whose story is included in Blake's booklet, spoke briefly, in subdued tones.
"I suppose the purpose that I'm here is to be the exclamation. ... Our son (Peter) died last December '05 from substance abuse. ... That DVD is our story. It's just a different outcome."
Since Peter's death, Bildner and wife, Nancy, have tried to give meaning to his life by warning others. "Our son's gone. But he can make a difference."
Seven attempts at rehabilitation failed to cure his son, Bildner said. He warned that Peter had told him he could buy heroin within 10 minutes on any street in any town in the United States. "Drugs are an equal-opportunity killer."
During the question-and-answer period, Levine repeated a plea for drug testing in the schools whenever teachers, trained to know the symptoms, suspect drug use.
"I know it's controversial," he said. "But it's time. Kids are dying."
No one argued against it.
Bildner discounted the issue of privacy for kids. "In Peter's cell phone when he died was a list of every drug dealer he had."
Offering a sobering view of what parents face, Bildner described a massive drug business that spans the world even as it moves from block to block and town to town eluding law enforcement. "You can't underestimate what you're up against. (Never mind what) your 12-year-old, your 14-year-old (is up against). It can't be solved by funds. It can't be solved by law enforcement. It can only be solved by a rage against this adversary."