HOOSICK FALLS -- More than 70 people gathered in the basement of the Hoosick Falls Armory on Wednesday night for a special town hall meeting on drug abuse. There was a larger turnout than there were seats available.

A panel of experts from law enforcement, media and medical fields spoke to the concerns of residents about what has appeared to be a heroin epidemic. Those who attended were able to have an open dialogue after the panel spoke, upfront or anonymously.

"This is truly an epidemic," said Hoosick Falls Assistant Chief of Police Harold McClellan

"I hate to be the one up here sounding like an alarmist, but somebody has got to do it. The complex physical addiction characteristics of this drug are unlike anything we have ever dealt with before."

The panel featured Doug Davidson, who spoke of his personal experiences battling with opiate and other drug addiction. He said it is likely that everyone knows somebody who is a drug addict or alcoholic. He said it's important to understand how addictive substances can be, and the control they can take over people's lives.

"It is a disease," Davidson said. "There are a lot of ways that we can make people better, and there are a lot of ways that we have learned that have not made people better."

The Londonderry, Vt., native described his childhood as one that incubated his behavior at an early age. He started as a heavy drinker before he turned 18. He was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War, where he was introduced to heroin. Upon his return to the states, Davidson said his drug use turned into anything he could get his hands on. He said he is a parent of two -- a job he didn't think he did a good job with.

"I got to that point where I was really not being much of a parent," Davidson said. "A friend of mine got into recovery it was a rehab: I got sober and I got straight. My life changed."

After 17 years of sobriety, Davidson started using drugs again. "I blamed it on getting hurt skiing, but I shouldn't have," he said. "I was probably going to do it anyway I hid it for years and years until I couldn't hide it anymore."

Davidson developed an addiction to alcohol, pills and other opiates. "I started traveling with a group of people, and it was a lot of fun," Davidson said. "At least until it got to be no fun. Every time I needed to get high, I had to lie, cheat and steal from people. Finally I got to that point where I couldn't do it any longer or I was going to die."

Had alcohol poisoning one week, and overdosed on opiates another. "I didn't think I was going to live. They told me I was going to live, and if I was going to stay alive I was going to have to change."

Davidson went to a V.A. hospital in what he called his time of surrender. During his medicated recovery, he worked at a "turning point center" to encourage others to get through recovery. He said the only way people can recover is if they have the willpower to do it. He continues to talk about his experience in the hope that it prevents others from making similar mistakes.

The purpose of the town hall meeting was to help the community recognize behaviors and social interactions in youth, and to have an open dialogue to support those affected by drug abuse.

The availability of prescription drugs in addition to environments that inhibit alcohol or other drug use can lead to harder substances, according to licensed private practice mental health counselor, Chris Sherman. Alcohol lowers self-esteem and inhibitions, which can lead to more willingness to try new things, engage in unruly social circles and ultimately crime to support a habit.

"It is also important for parents and professionals to recognize the problem signs," Sherman said, which is precisely the purpose of HAYC3. "Parents need support from the community so they don't feel alone, stigmatized or ashamed if they or their child is having problems. Families need access to resources and services."

Rutland Police Department Chief of Police James Baker said at least 80 percent of heroin addicts start with prescription painkillers. Saturday, April 26, is National Drug Take-Back Day, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Baker said disposing of drugs properly and having a dialogue with families and children about the harm they can cause is the best way to engage the "heroin epidemic."

Find a collection site for unused prescription drugs at www.dea.gov, or call (800) 882-9539. For more on the HAYC3 town hall meeting on drug abuse, go to http://www.benningtonbanner.com/localnews/ci_25589413/hayc3-plans-meeting-drug-abuse.

Contact Tom Momberg at tmomberg@benningtonbanner.com Follow him on Twitter @TomMomberg