Alberta government sued over new rules being implemented for supervised consumption sites

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

The lawsuit, filed by advocacy group Moms Stop the Harm Society and the Lethbridge Overdose Prevention Society, seeks to overturn a series of regulations expected to come into effect in September. 

The groups, who spoke Friday at a news conference in Calgary, say the series of rules found in the Mental Health Act will stop substance users from accessing lifesaving support, and prevent grassroots organizations from providing services in smaller communities where they are not available.

“Substance users will disengage from supervised consumption sites to consume substances and be subject to all forms of harm, including an increased risk of overdose death,” says the statement of claim filed in Alberta’s Court of Queen’s Bench on Aug. 13.

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

‘Common sense things’

However, a statement from Alberta Health provided on Friday says the province is “focused on protecting people from the harms of substance use and making a pathway to treatment and recovery available.

“Part of this process is ensuring that supervised consumption and overdose prevention services are properly regulated, to ensure safety and quality for clients, staff, and communities,” Steve Buick, press secretary to Health Minister Tyler Shandro, wrote in an email to CBC News.

Buick said licensing requirements include “common sense things” that should have been included from the outset, including “good-neighbour agreements,” referrals to treatment services, washroom access, needle debris cleanup, clinical practice standards, and records management.

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

“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.” 

‘Indigenous overdose epidemic’

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.

“The overdose epidemic that we’re having is really an Indigenous overdose epidemic,” Avnish Nanda, lawyer for the two groups, said in an interview Thursday.

Indigenous people are often 10 times more likely than non-Indigenous people to die or suffer harm related to the opioid crisis, he said.

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 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. The rules also create additional hurdles, it says.

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

Nanda says the UCP’s attack on harm-reduction policies beginning in 2019 coincides with the jump in opioid deaths among Indigenous people in Alberta. 

Users’ health-care numbers required

Users must provide personal health care numbers to access services. These numbers can be digitally accessed without their permission by other Alberta health-care providers and even shared with police, says the lawsuit.

“They don’t want to be identified as substance users in the medical system; they don’t want to be known to police as someone using substances,” Nanda said. “So it’s going to deter them from accessing the services.”

Criminal record checks on staff will also be required, which could exclude staff with valuable lived experience, Nanda said.

Facilities will need widespread community support under the so-called “good neighbour agreement” as well as a letter of support from the police chief, he added.

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 harms for substance users, the government has said there is a need to integrate consumption service sites with the health system as a way to get people with addictions into recovery.  

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.

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