Calgary woman sues province to maintain access to drug she says has saved her from overdose

Ophelia Black was prescribed a high-potency opioid to help with severe opioid use disorder. (Judy Aldous/CBC - image credit)
Ophelia Black was prescribed a high-potency opioid to help with severe opioid use disorder. (Judy Aldous/CBC - image credit)

A 21-year-old Calgary woman is suing the provincial government to maintain access to her prescription for a high-potency opioid, which she says has saved her from overdosing on street drugs.

For two years, Ophelia Black has been injecting herself three times a day with the opioid hydromorphone, prescribed to her by her doctor.

Black has been diagnosed with severe opioid use disorder and says this prescription has kept her alive and helped her kick her fentanyl habit.

In October, the province announced an amendment to its narcotic transition services (NTS) program, saying patients would no longer be allowed to take the drugs at home. In Calgary, that would mean they would have to transition to a clinic in downtown, be monitored while administering the treatment and eventually be tapered off the drug.

Black's prescription ends Friday.

Two days ago, she sued the government.

'Increasing her likelihood of overdose'

In the statement of claim filed in a Calgary court Wednesday, Black's lawyer, Avnish Nanda, alleged "Black will disengage from treatment and return to street-sourced opioid consumption, increasing her likelihood of overdose death or experiencing other serious health harms."

The lawsuit claims the change would be impractical for Black because she would have to travel more than six hours each day to and from the clinic. Black uses public transit and lives far from downtown, and she would need to make the trip several times a day. And the clinic would not be open when she needs her medication.

Black's allegations have not been tested in court. The government has not filed a statement of defence and says it cannot comment on a specific case before the courts.

The lawsuit also comes amid a public policy debate in Canada about how governments should manage drug addiction and overdose deaths. The Alberta government has publicly stated it opposes the concept of safe supply and will instead focus on treatment and recovery.

Judy Aldous/CBC
Judy Aldous/CBC

In an email sent to the CBC News, the government said the changes around opioids are required to keep the community safe.

"The Oxy-Contin crisis of the early 2000's clearly showed that when high-risk opioids are available, diversion occurs and rates of opioid addiction increase," said Colin Aitchison, with the Ministry of Addiction and Mental Health in an email.

Aitchison says some exemptions may be granted:

"There have been a small number of clients where it has been identified that their prescribers may not be able to meet the requirements of the regulation in certain extenuating circumstances," he wrote.

"We have been working diligently with [Alberta Health Services] to ensure that no clients are abruptly transitioned, and extended the timeline or granted exemptions to accommodate each unique case."

Nanda says the government has not indicated that Black qualifies for an exemption and "unless that occurs, we will continue on with our lawsuit."

CBC Calgary is launching a series next week called The Way Out: Addiction in Alberta. It will further explore Black's story as well as the people and the politicians pushing for solutions to the opioid crisis.