Mary Kilroy's son Patrick Bennett didn't set out to get hooked on drugs.
After losing him to a drug overdose, she is now working to warn other parents.
"We're losing our children," she says. "They're dying. And they're young."
The grieving mother wants policy changes, to bring about more treatment options for addiction and safe supplies of illicit drugs.
To help push toward those changes, Kilroy, who lives in St. John's, has become one of the first two people from Newfoundland and Labrador to join a national organization called Moms Stop the Harm, a network of Canadian families impacted by drug addiction and drug-related deaths.
She knows her efforts won't bring her son back, but hopes she can help save someone else's.
"We're losing our children. They're dying. And they're young, and some only try drugs once and they die of fentanyl overdoses," said Kilroy.
A life lost to addiction
Bennett started out like most little boys, born into a family who loved him and who enjoyed his good-natured ways.
But substance abuse ran in his family — Kilroy calls it "a family disease" — and addiction took over the lives of her and Bennett's father, she said. At a young age, he too started using alcohol and drug as a reprieve from the pain and trauma.
By the time Kilroy went into drug treatment and came out in recovery herself, Bennett was using illicit drugs and a downward spiral seemed inevitable.
Still, Kilroy held out hope, and helped as best she could.
"My whole reason for turning my life around was to show him that you can live without drugs and alcohol," said Kilroy.
She let Bennett live with her until the pandemic hit. His couch-surfing and drug use put him in contact with too many people, she said, and caused worries about exposing her granddaughter, who has breathing problems, to COVID-19.
Kilroy asked him to move out.
Before that, things had been looking up when Bennett completed an in-patient rehab program in Ontario. But having accumulated fines and jail sentences for a string of crimes committed while using drugs, Bennett's end of rehab meant having to serve out his jail time. Kilroy said that led to her son's relapse, his last before the use of fentanyl-tainted cocaine took his life in February 2021.
He was 29.
"He was totally powerless. At a young age, he lost his soul to drugs and alcohol," said Kilroy.
'These are not suicides'
Michelle Cleary-Haire lives in fear of receiving a call like Kilroy did.
Cleary-Haire, from Harbour Grace on Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula, said her daughter suffers from drug addiction and, like Bennett, has been in and out of treatment and jail.
She's also a member of Moms Stop The Harm, and believes strongly that decriminalizing small amounts of illicit drugs, safe injection sites, and a safe supply of drugs free of fentanyl are all part of the solution.
"Until there is a safe supply, our young people, our children, our brothers or sisters, they're going to continue to die," said Cleary-Haire.
She points to a statistic from the NL Centre for Health Information that showed 28 people in Newfoundland and Labrador died from overdose-related deaths in 2021.
"That's 28 people who did not want to die. These are not suicides," said Cleary-Haire.
In an ideal world, she said it would be nice to believe that everyone will stop using drugs entirely, but harm reduction needs to be the priority for the time being.
She'd like to see political leaders take the drug epidemic as seriously as they've taken the pandemic.
"Look what happened with COVID in two years, the billions of dollars that went into working with that crisis. Well, the drug crisis is also killing people. And we are not doing enough. Our drug policies are poor. We can do better," said Cleary-Haire.
Kilroy said she's hoping that talking publicly about her son's tragic death will help someone else to avoid his fate.
"It takes you to jails, institutions, and then death. And he had been to the other two so many times. And I guess it was his time," she said.
Safe needles, no safe supply
Jessica Rex, who works in harm reduction, couldn't agree more with Kilroy and Cleary-Haire's calls for change.
Rex is with the Safe Works Access Program, run by the AIDS Committee of Newfoundland and Labrador. The program provides sterile injection equipment and opioid overdose reversal kids to people who use drugs. But the program has no supply of drugs itself; those must be bought illegally.
"That street supply has been unpredictable, expensive, tainted, and fatally toxic," said Rex. "There's a definite need for safe supply in this province."
Rex said safe supply of limited quantities of illicit drugs would save lives.
"The reality is that fatal drug poisonings continue to increase, drug use continues to happen, and criminalization, segregation and stigmatizing drug use have not changed that reality," she said.
Barry Hewitt has seen the devastating effects of drug use in his work as provincial systems navigator for mental health and addictions, working with people who seek help for their addictions and with family members who want support.
He said illegal drug use in Newfoundland and Labrador is widespread, and he doubts there's a community in the province where you can't find illegal drugs.
"The scary part when you look at illegal drugs is you really don't know what you're getting," said Hewitt.
"You don't know what's actually in many of the drugs that people are taking."
Help is available to anyone seeking medical withdrawal management, opioid treatment, and long-term recovery, he said, through either in-patient recovery centres or outpatient counselling.