Alberta supervised consumption sites will be required to collect the personal health numbers of clients as of Feb. 1, following a court ruling this week.
Two organizations that advocate for drug users and their families are challenging a new provincial government rule that the sites must collect the information from those who have it.
"I just find it incredible that the death of people — and not just a small number of people, a large number of people — is not sufficient enough to restrict Alberta in a small manner when it comes to its addiction policy," said lawyer Avnish Nanda, who represents the organizations.
The groups requested the Court of Queen's Bench issue a temporary injunction halting the requirement for staff to ask for personal health numbers.
Justice R. Paul Belzil denied the application. He wrote that although the plaintiffs had proved "irreparable harm will occur to some illicit drug users" with the policy in place, the Alberta government's ability to create its own addictions policy was of greater public interest.
"It's very troubling," said Nanda, whose clients are the Lethbridge Overdose Prevention Society and the advocacy group Moms Stop the Harm. "People I represent in this case may die as a result of this order and we turn to the courts for this, for help, to prevent this from happening. And the courts are just kind of washing their hands of this."
New mandatory standards
The requirement is part of a new set of mandatory standards for the sites. If a client doesn't have a health card, site staff are supposed to help them apply for one. The government says no one should be turned away for refusing to provide the information.
The new rules, most of which took effect last September, require sites to provide referrals to addiction treatment and recovery services and gain buy-in from nearby businesses and residents as part of "good neighbour" agreements.
In a statement on Tuesday, Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Mike Ellis cheered the court ruling, saying the standards improve safety around the sites and better connect clients to other health services.
"We will not allow our communities to become chaotic and disorderly," he said in the statement.
However, the plaintiffs gave evidence to the court that asking clients for any form of identification can cause them to leave before using the service, or stay away entirely.
They argue it puts users at higher risk for drug poisoning and death. It also leaves them more vulnerable to contracting blood-borne diseases like hepatitis and HIV.
The decision comes as Alberta is on track for a record-breaking year in opioid poisonings. According to provincial government data, 1,247 people died in the first 10 months of 2021. That's more than the total number who died in 2020, which was previously the deadliest year recorded.
Petra Schulz, co-founder of Moms Stop the Harm, said when she volunteers with street outreach groups, people tell her they would be unwilling to share their health numbers.
Some have outstanding tickets or warrants for minor infractions, she said.
"Every time we make it more difficult, people will not access these services, and, as an end result, we have overdoses happening in LRT stations, inside malls, in washrooms, and people die," she said.
Collecting health information from clients and referring them to other services should come later in the process when they have built trusting relationships with health-care workers, she said.
Any injunction halting the policy would have been an interim measure. Schulz said her group is fundraising and plans to continue a court challenge of the policy, claiming it infringes on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Nanda said it can take years for such a case to make it to trial.