A discussion on drug use took center stage inside Laguna Beach High School's Artists Theatre Monday night.
But unlike the venue's usual productions, the stories were real, explaining an epidemic experts say is sweeping Orange County.
Photos of girls, boys, women and men — and their ages: 15, 17, 19, 21, 25 — scrolled on the screen as 400 attendees watched a portion of the documentary "Overtaken," featuring stories of adolescents who succumbed to illegal drugs such as heroin and methamphetamines and/or prescription pills like Vicodin and OxyContin.
Assistant Principal Robert Billinger said there was a reason why he selected a day in the middle of prom season to hold the discussion.
"I get about three hours of sleep because I worry you won't get home," he said. "We're in the midst of drug and alcohol abuse that's far greater than I've seen before, and I grew up in the '60s and '70s. The problem now is we are so much more lax. There's nothing more humbling than going to a funeral with an open casket and inside is a 21-year-old woman."
The event, presented in partnership with California Youth Services, included insights from medical, law enforcement and judicial professionals, and testimony from survivors who are turning their lives around.
Substance use and addiction are the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, according to a June 2012 study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. Four in 10 12- to 25-year-olds in the U.S. (23.7 million) have used an illicit drug, the study says.
Orange County courts are clogged with individuals charged with felony drug offenses, Superior Court Judge John Adams told the audience.
On Monday, Adams, who works at the West Justice Center in Westminster, said there were 106 drug-related cases on the docket.
"I'm looking forward to handling bank robberies," he said. "My days are consumed with negotiating plea agreements to people who want to get off drugs. I've had enough. It doesn't have to happen."
Laguna Niguel resident Jodi Barber co-produced "Overtaken" after her son Jarrod died from a prescription pill overdose.
Jarrod played baseball, surfed and was happy, but suffered from anxiety, Barber said.
He started using marijuana but over time the drug didn't help him calm down, so he moved to something stronger, Opana (an opioid painkiller), Barber said.
"Addiction takes over the entire family," Barber said. "My son never had the chance to have a girlfriend, get married, have kids. I'm here to save lives. Take this seriously and never start [using drugs]. One pill can kill."
Michael Ritter, Mission Hospital Mission Viejo's emergency medical director, said he is seeing many victims arrive with alcohol poisoning or heroin or crystal meth in their bodies.
With narcotics, users may stop breathing or become so sedated that they choke on their own vomit, Ritter said. Stimulants such as meth, cocaine and ecstasy can cause heart attacks, stroke or death, he said.
Heather Persons, 41, grew up in Laguna Beach and started smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol by the time she was 10. At 13 she was using LSD, ecstasy and Vicodin, and by 16 she moved to heroin.
Police officers knew Persons, but as a juvenile she received little more than a hand slap, she said.
"My mom would reprimand me, but the moment she turned her back I was gone again," said Persons, who lived on the street for a time and dropped out of school.
She was arrested for the first time when she was 18. "I could not believe I was being arrested," she said. "I never dreamed I would be a drug addict."
Persons said she was arrested so many times that she lost count.
Hope came in January 2008, though, when Persons decided she needed to change her life and joined Orange County's Adult Drug Court, a collaboration that includes the Probation Department, Health Care Agency, and the Sheriff's Department, according to the county's Superior Court website.
Drug court participants attend counseling sessions, 12-step recovery meetings and specialty group sessions, and are supervised by a probation officer.
"I knew I had to do something different," Persons said. "I needed structure, to be told what to do and when to do it. Drug court taught me how to write checks, live life as a human being."
The program takes 18 months to complete, but Persons, who has been sober 6 1/2 years, finished hers in 16 months, graduating in June 2009.
She is working toward an associate's degree from Saddleback College, volunteers with the county's Juvenile Drug Court program and hopes to become a drug court probation officer.
"I have a relationship with my family now," Persons said. "I didn't realize when I took that first drink how drugs would overtake my life."
Communication is critical to stopping drug use and abuse before it starts, Persons said.
"I didn't have the education on what drugs are and the consequences for using them," she said. "Be up front and open, not worried about whether you are going to scare them or hurt their feelings. It's better to just ask."
Assistant Principal Billinger echoed Persons' comment.
"Never be afraid to ask [for help]," he said. "We don't stand here in judgment. We're here to help."
Laguna Beach Unified School District works with California Youth Services, a Laguna Hills-based nonprofit that offers a variety of programs and services specializing in substance abuse, delinquent behavior, and mental health struggles.