'Life and death:' Harm reduction groups file lawsuit against Alberta government

·4 min read

CALGARY — A lawsuit has been filed against the Alberta government alleging its rules for supervised drug-use sites will have life and death consequences.

Leading the charge are two non-profit societies: Moms Stop the Harm and the Lethbridge Overdose Prevention Society. They argue the government is not only increasing barriers to the harm reduction service, but breaching the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

"It's scary taking your government to court, but we felt compelled to do this," said Petra Schulz, co-founder of the Moms group, a national advocacy organization pushing for drug policy reform.

Her son, Danny, died from a fentanyl overdose in 2014.

"(The government) blindly follows their ideology leaving dead bodies in the wake. We can't allow that to happen," she said.

The United Conservative government in June outlined new regulations for existing and future supervised drug-use sites. If operators do not meet the standards, they will be unable to receive provincial funding.

The new rules include requirements for service providers to collect personal health numbers from people and to develop “good neighbour agreements” to support community integration.

Schulz said requiring identification will force clients to turn away from the sites and use drugs outside of medical settings, increasing the risk of fatal overdoses.

"Because of stigma, because of the criminalization of substance use and because of the consequences that are attached, like criminal prosecution, potential of job loss, potential of losing an apartment, conflicts with family ... people will avoid anything that will have them identified."

The statement of claim, filed last week, also alleges the province's rules frustrate a framework set by the federal government to streamline applications for and operation of the sites.

It asks the court to invalidate the provincial guidelines and suspend them during the legal process.

None of the allegations in the claim has been proven in court and no statements of defence have been filed.

Steve Buick, a spokesman for Alberta's associate minister of mental health and addictions, said in a statement that licensing requirements will not reduce access to services.

"They're common-sense things that should have been in place when (sites) were introduced," said Buick. "Providers are required to identify clients by their personal health numbers to help integrate their services with other health services."

The government is talking with current and potential providers to ensure services aren't affected when the rules come into place Sept. 30, he said.

Edmonton-based lawyer Avnish Nanda, who is representing the two non-profit groups, said bringing in the regulations during the height of the overdose crisis is "extremely risky."

Between January and May of this year, 624 Albertans died from accidental drug poisonings — a 41 per cent increase compared with the same period last year.

Lethbridge, which has been described as "ground zero" for the crisis, had an overdose rate 2.5 times higher than the provincial rate in May.

The southern Alberta city has had a spike in deaths since the province stripped funding from its supervised consumption site last year over unfounded allegations of financial misconduct.

The Lethbridge Overdose Prevention Society started in response to the closure and offered supervised drug-use services in parks. It suspended operations after pressure from residents, police and the province, but has since resumed, said Nanda.

"(The society) is unable to secure the approval of its neighbours for the areas in Lethbridge that it operates ... shifting to the geographic needs of the community that consumes substances," alleges the court document.

"If (it) continues to deliver supervised consumption services, it will be subject to serious regulatory penalties and criminal sanctions."

The statement of claim alleges over 70 per cent of the group's clients are Indigenous people,who are disproportionately dying as a result of deadly street drugs, often laced with highly potent fentanyl.

Nanda said while it's rare to take provincial governments to court, it's necessary because lives are at risk.

"It really shows this government has pushed a lot of very vulnerable and marginalized folks to the end. This is the line," he said.

"Governments should view (this lawsuit) in good faith. All people are asking is for the status quo to be maintained."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 20, 2021.

Alanna Smith, The Canadian Press

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