A lawsuit has been filed against the Alberta government alleging its rules governing supervised drug-use sites will have life and death impacts.
Leading the charge are two non-profit societies, called Moms Stop the Harm (MSTH) and the Lethbridge Overdose Prevention Society (LOPS). 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 MSTH, 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.
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The United Conservative government launched new regulations for supervised drug-use sites in June, which outline standards for the operation of existing and future sites to receive funding.
Included among a list of the new rules are requirements for service providers to collect personal health numbers from clients and implement “good neighbour agreements” to support community integration.
Schulz said identification requirements force clients to disengage from drug-use 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,” she said.
The statement of claim, filed last week, also alleges the province’s rules frustrate the regulatory framework set by the federal government to streamline the application process, implementation 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. The province did not immediately return a request for comment.
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Edmonton-based lawyer Avnish Nanda, who is representing the two non-profit groups, said implementation of Alberta’s 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 to the same time frame 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 seen a spike in deaths since the province stripped funding from its supervised consumption site last year for unfounded allegations of financial misconduct.
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The Lethbridge Overdose Prevention Society started in response to the closure, offering supervised drug-use services in local parks. It shut down after pressure from residents, police and the province.
“LOPS is unable to secure the approval of its neighbours for the areas in Lethbridge that it operates. LOPS operates in numerous locations in Lethbridge, shifting to the geographic needs of the community that consumes substances,” alleges the court document.
“If LOPS continues to deliver supervised consumption services, it will be subject to serious regulatory penalties and criminal sanctions.”
The statement of claim also 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 previously represented a group of chronic opioid use disorder patients who challenged the province in court last October over its decision to halt injectable opioid agonist treatment programs.
They alleged the province violated their protected rights. The province agreed to continue funding the programs for existing clients before a final court decision was issued.
Nanda said while it’s rare to take provincial governments to court, it’s necessary considering 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.”
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