Alberta government sued over new rules for supervised sites for drug use

Families advocating for loved ones with an opioid-use disorder have launched a lawsuit challenging new provincial regulations for supervised consumption sites, as opioid deaths climb among Albertans.

Lawsuit launched by two groups representing people with addictions

Supervised consumption sites often resemble medical clinics, allowing people to take drugs in a monitored and hygienic place. (CBC News)

Groups advocating for people with opioid addictions have launched a lawsuit challenging new rules in Alberta for supervised drug consumption sites, as opioid deaths climb in the province.

The lawsuit, filed by advocacy groups Moms Stop the Harm Society and the Lethbridge Overdose Prevention Society (LOPS), seeks to overturn new provincial licensing requirements coming into effect on Sept. 30.

The rules require sites, which often resemble medical clinics and allow users to take drugs in a monitored and hygienic environment, to provide referrals to treatment and recovery services. They must gain approval from local businesses and residents in "good neighbour" agreements and ask users to provide personal health identification numbers to access the sites.

"By being unsure what this personal information will be used for, many have said they will refuse to use these sites, thus leading to the very real possibility of using alone, overdosing and dying," Kym Porter, who is with the Moms Stop the Harm Society, told a news conference in Calgary on Friday.

The lawsuit is the latest court action in an ongoing battle between the province and advocacy groups over how to address the ever-growing opioid epidemic.

While advocates see the sites as a way to reduce health and social harm for substance users, the government has said there is a need to integrate sites with the health system as a way to get users into recovery. 

'Common sense things'

An email from Alberta Health on Friday said proper regulation was meant "to ensure safety and quality for clients, staff, and communities."

The new requirements include "common sense things" such as "good neighbour agreements," referrals to treatment services, needle debris cleanup, clinical practice standards, and records management, Steve Buick, press secretary to Health Minister Tyler Shandro, wrote in an email to CBC News.

"Licensing will not reduce access to services; that suggestion is part of a false narrative promoted by the NDP and others," Buick said.

"We do not oppose harm reduction; what we're opposed to, is the previous government's single focus on harm-reduction and their neglect of recovery-oriented treatment."

Impact on Indigenous people

The lawsuit comes at a time when roughly four Albertans die daily from opioid poisoning; fatalities are even higher in Alberta's First Nations communities, according to government figures.

Indigenous people are often 10 times more likely than non-Indigenous people to die or suffer harm related to the opioid crisis, Avnish Nanda, lawyer for the two groups, said in an interview Thursday.

Lawyer Avnish Nanda is representing the advocacy group Moms Stop the Harm Society (MSTH) and the Lethbridge Overdose Prevention Society (LOPS) in their lawsuit against the Alberta government. (Sam Martin/CBC)

The lawsuit —filed in Alberta's Court of Queen's Bench on Aug. 13 — says the incoming rules reimpose barriers that were removed by federal legislation in an effort to deliver services to address the worsening opioid overdose epidemic. 

A statement of defence hasn't been filed and the allegations have not been proven in court.

Nanda says that means many grassroots operators such as LOPS will no longer be able to provide services in smaller communities where non exists.

"If we remove these barriers, it's going to be Indigenous substance abusers who experience the bulk of the harms," Nanda said. 

Users' health-care numbers required

The new rules also increase the risk of stigma and discrimination, says the lawsuit, by allowing identifying information to be digitally accessed without consent by other Alberta health-care providers and even shared with police.

Ophelia, an intravenous drug user who only shared her first name, told the news conference the sites allowed her to live a happy, functioning life. She said people who use drugs were not consulted about the new regulations.

Buick says a system is in place to help find personal health numbers for those who don't have them and that no one would be denied access to services during that process.

Premier Jason Kenney has said his government was elected with a commitment to endorse new sites only after extensive consultations with affected communities.

The government vowed to bring in quality control measures last year after releasing a widely criticized government report that blamed consumption sites for increasing crime and social disorder in their neighbourhoods.