"Your mom and dad are not going to be holding your hand when someone says, 'Hey, smoke this; drink this,'" Joe Ryan, Harford County's drug control policy manager, told teenagers and children sitting in Patterson Mill Middle/High School's auditorium Wednesday night.
The young people were among 150 people of all ages who attended the first of Harford County's six countywide information meetings on drug abuse in the middle school age group.
The program series, a partnership among several county agencies, is one of County Executive Barry Glassman's and Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler's initiatives to fight heroin abuse in the county, which as reached epidemic proportions according to county leaders and health professionals.
The county received a state grant this summer to expand its anti-drug outreach to the middle school age group, where officials say there has been increased exposure to heroin.
"We just want to share the data that tells us that our youth are experimenting and using hard drugs at earlier ages," Ryan said before Wednesday's meeting, noting the same information has been presented in the high schools for more than a decade.
"Parents talking to their kids is more powerful than any teacher or any government agency," he said. "A lot of parents don't know [drug information], and we want to give them local data. We also want them to know that 90 percent [of teens] are not doing drugs."
Although Ryan's presentation was aimed at parents, many attendees came with their children. The event was also open to the general public.
Ryan gave out Harford-specific numbers from the 2013 Maryland Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which showed 6.5 percent of Harford's 6th grade students and 11.8 percent of 8th grade students regularly drink alcohol. It also showed 8.3 percent of 8th grade students and 3.4 percent of 6th grade students used marijuana at least once within 30 days of the survey.
He urged children not to start using marijuana or alcohol, which he said are two of Harford's top five sources of substance abuse, along with heroin, prescription drugs and synthetic marijuana commonly called "spice."
The Maryland General Assembly recently decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana and passed legislation to launch medical marijuana growing and dispensing in the state – both of which may happen in Harford, but Ryan blasted the drift toward greater permissiveness, saying marijuana is much more potent today than it was decades ago.
In Colorado, where the drug was legalized completely, Ryan said drug-related traffic crashes have increased by 114 percent and the homeless population has skyrocketed as drug users neglected their daily duties.
About medical marijuana, he said: "What doctor is going to say, 'In order for you to get better, I need you to go home and smoke dope'? No doctor is ever going to say that."
Although Ryan delivered the facts about the dangers of drugs, the highlight for many attendees appeared to be a talk by Craig and Lisa McLaughlin about losing their daughter, Hannah, to heroin abuse.
Craig McLaughlin is pastor at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church near Bel Air and has told Hannah's story around the county, including at last month's well attended town hall meeting on heroin abuse held at Harford Community College by the county executive and the sheriff.
Addiction is "extremely ugly," Craig McLaughlin said, explaining his daughter spent years trying to get sober after using drugs to deal with a childhood trauma her parents did not know she had. The recovery rate for heroin use is only 3 percent.
"If you've got any kind of pain, any kind of emotional hurt in your life, talk, talk, talk," he told a silent Patterson Mill auditorium. "You are only as sick as your biggest secret."
Several parents said afterward they were glad to see their children captivated by the McLaughlins' talk.
"We were just talking about how the kids gave 100 percent [attention during the McLaughlins' presentation]," Bel Air's Jessica Lamoureux said while chatting with Danielle Wheeler following the meeting. Both women have two children, in fifth and seventh grades.
Lamoureux said hearing "a real-life story" instead of statistics was really helpful, and the meeting would give her common ground with her children for future communication.
"It will lead to more conversations down the road," she said.
Wheeler added: "I like them to know the reality of the situation, just in their school."
Abingdon's Steven Ross also said he was impressed to see his children, an 8th-grade student at Patterson Mill Middle and a fourth-grade student at William S. James Elementary, paying attention the entire time of the McLaughlins' speech.
"I thought it was awesome that they did it. I was really happy," he said. Ross said he wished more people had attended the meeting, to which he brought some of his friends.
"I was very happy that [my son] heard the stories, especially that family [the McLaughlins]. It was a very moving testimony," he said.
Derick Beatty of Abingdon, who brought two children, said he appreciated learning the new slang teens might be using for heroin, "just to hear what is on the streets."
Noting teenagers are "always on their phones," Beatty added it was useful to hear "the buzzwords," like "brown sugar" and "boy" for heroin.
One Patterson Mill High freshman, Foster Apple, said the talk was more emotional than he had expected.
"It was very motivational, telling us what to do to prevent it [drugs], what to do if somebody's addicted to it," Foster said, adding he was not personally too worried about drug abuse because he was very selective about his acquaintances.
"I wouldn't say I am concerned, because I really have to choose a friend. I really have to know my friends," he explained.
His mother, Olivia Apple of Bel Air, also appreciated the meeting.
"We are new to Harford County, so, I know that drugs are everywhere, but I was kind of surprised about heroin," she said. "Everyone was smoking pot when I was younger. You think you know [about drugs] because you have grown up already, but a lot of it has changed."
Five more of the one hour sessions are scheduled, each beginning at 6:30 p.m.:
Wednesday, Oct. 7 - Fallston Middle School;
Tuesday, Oct. 13 - Aberdeen Middle School;
Thursday, Oct. 22 - North Harford Middle School;
Wednesday, Oct. 28 - Edgewood Middle School; and
Thursday, Nov. 5 - Southampton Middle School.