With a ruling that came into force on February 1, the Alberta Court of Appeal has dismissed an appeal from harm reduction advocates to suspend a provincial policy that requires individuals who want to use the services of supervised drug use sites to provide their health care number.
The appeal, filed as an emergency request, was made after a judge had denied an application to suspended the ID requirement at supervised drug use sites. In its decision, the Alberta Court of Appeal stated that the chambers judge, Justice Paul Belzil, accepted that there is “an opioid epidemic in Alberta,” but that the solutions are not obvious.
“Public health authorities in Alberta are struggling to respond to this epidemic, as are public health authorities in every other province or territory in Canada,” stated the three Appeal Court judges in their decision. “The challenged regulation is part of an overall strategy to respond to the opioid overdose epidemic within the broader framework of the health-care system.”
The requirement to provide a health card number came into effect as part of the United Conservative government’s new regulations for existing and future supervised drug use sites. Moreover, it requires service providers to develop “good neighbour agreements” to support community integration and to maintain records on clients, as well as adverse reactions to substance use and referrals to treatment. Consequently, failing to comply with these requirements will prevent supervised drug site operators from accessing provincial funding.
According to harm reduction advocates including Moms Stop the Harm and the Lethbridge Overdose Prevention Society, the two non-profit organizations that filed the appeal, the requirement to provide a health card number could increase barriers to the sites and increase the risk of overdoses.
According to the legal representatives of the government, this rule will help service providers “guide people to recovery-focused supports and that guidelines afford discretion to operators.”
Furthermore, according to the Appeal Court judges, the two advocacy groups did not meet the test for an injunction.
“The decision to grant an interlocutory injunction is a discretionary exercise, with which an appellate court must not interfere solely because it would have exercised the discretion differently,” the decision reads.
“Appellate intervention is justified only for an error of law or principle, where there are palpable and overriding errors of fact, or where the exercise of the discretion is so aberrant that no reasonable judge could have reached the decision.”
However, the Edmonton-based lawyer Avnish Nanda representing the plaintiffs, said the ruling is a diminishment of the lives of people with substance use issues.
“It’s basically finding that their lives don’t matter or matter enough as part of this equation of whether we can stop government action for a temporary period of time in order to stop irreparable harm that consists of the deaths of substances users,” Nanda said in his interview with CBC News.