Alberta, Canada, remains a battleground for harm reduction rights. This past August, a coalition of local organizations launched a lawsuit against the conservative provincial government over a new policy that would drastically hinder people’s ability to access safe consumption sites (SCS). They were dealt a significant blow in the ongoing case this month, and are now pinning their hopes on an emergency appeal.
The plaintiffs—Moms Stop the Harm (MSTH) and the Lethbridge Overdose Prevention Society (LOPS)—saw their injunction request for national standard operating rules to apply to Alberta-based SCS swiftly shot down.
The injunction was designed to halt the recent provincial mandate that requires people seeking SCS services to provide a medical referral and a provincial health number. Many who require these services don’t have access to these things, or may be comfortable with sharing their personal data, meaning that the mandate effectively excludes marginalized people from facilities that save lives. Its provisions are due to take effect on January 31.
“The government that we’re dealing with is very punitive with people who don’t fall in line.”
“As the government was rolling out these regulations, it became clear to us that service providers had limited ability to speak out about these regulations without losing funding … the government that we’re dealing with is very punitive with people who don’t fall in line,” Petra Schulz, co-founder of MSTH and a primary representative in the ongoing legal case, told Filter.
The verdict on the injunction was filed on January 10. While the Crown judge overseeing the case expressed sympathy for the plaintiffs, the decision illustrated the heavy odds against Alberta harm reduction advocates under the current provincial administration of the United Conservative Party (UCP).
“We felt immediate harm would come to people if these guidelines were implemented,” said Schulz. “The judge did not grant us the injunction and I really don’t understand why; [the judge] clearly states that irreparable harm will come to people and agreed with us on that point but referred to the case as a Balance of Convenience.”
A Balance of Convenience is generally defined as when the potential relief given to a plaintiff is weighed against the possible injury inflicted on the defendant—interpreted in this case as the prospective disruption to the provincial government’s current SCS guidelines if the demands of MSTH and LOPS were met.
“In essence, the province’s ability to do its job and regulate services outweighs the irreparable harm that will come to individuals,” Schulz said of the decision. “To me, that just means it’s okay for the province to let people die, as long as they get to do their jobs.”
However, the result did not come as a complete shock to Schulz, as she has been monitoring the Alberta government’s rhetoric over the course of the lawsuit.
“We don’t really get the ear of [government] staff, we get their polemic, and they have said that activists in Alberta have taken us to court,” she said. “I wear the label activist with pride, I take it as an acknowledgement that I have achieved something in the eyes of the public. In Alberta, activist is a bit of a swear word, you know—activists are people who come to rob us of our pipelines, and that sort of thing. So to go ahead and take a group of grieving parents and use that kind of divisive language shows you the government’s response.”
Eight years ago, Schulz, like many of the members that make up the bedrock of MSTH, lost her son to an overdose.
“It would be more accurate to say they’re the first provincial government to interfere with federal regulation.”
She also observed how the provincial government has lauded its own accomplishments regarding the regulation of SCS over the course of the case, despite the regulation of these sites falling under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act—a federal mandate.
“When we work towards the application for a consumption site in say, Edmonton, the process is very arduous, the guidelines that the federal government have are detailed … so for the Alberta government to say they’re the first to take steps to regulate them is an outright lie,” she said. “It would be more accurate to say they’re the first provincial government to interfere with federal regulation.”
A Search for Political Allies
Schulz and her allies reached out to the federal government of Canada—specifically Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Carolyn Bennet—in a January 13 letter that expresses the coalition’s frustrations. The signatories—including the HIV Legal Network and the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, among others—highlight that while they have adhered to federal policy, the provincial government continues to insist on its restrictive modification of national regulation.
“We are angry, we are confused, we are beyond dismayed and most importantly, we fear for the lives of the people who will now no longer have the low barrier access to supervised consumption services that are so essential to saving lives,” states the letter in reaction to the January 10 decision.
The letter also urges Minister Bennet to reach out to her Alberta counterpart, in order to “clarify that the mandatory collection of personally-identifying information is prohibited within federally exempted supervised consumption services.”
Timothy Slaney, a member of the LOPS board of directors and Schulz’s co-litigant in the legal case, expressed concern that the verdict serves to bolster the abstinence-based doctrine that the Alberta government has been promoting.
“The time is right for them to go for the throat on this, because it’s been such an obvious failure.”
“It’s a full-court press to turn the conversation away from harm reduction and the services that are being shut down,” he told Filter. “I think when you look at what their model of abstinence is, especially when it comes to things like making Sublocade available to the police, the model on how someone gets treatment and becomes sober is a crisis-based one.”
The outcome helps the UCP to maintain its grip on Alberta’s drug policy narrative, he believes.
“I think they are really desperate to delegitimize any group that is not under their direct control, which is why we have seen a lot of defunding and the shutting down of different organizations.”
With Schulz focused on taking the conversation to a federal level, Slaney has looked within Alberta for potential new allies, specifically the New Democratic Party of Alberta (NDP), which formed the previous provincial government and is the UCP’s direct opposition. Whether the federal government or Alberta’s opposition will directly speak on behalf of the rallying organizations remains to be seen.
“I think the time is really right for them to go for the throat on this, because it’s been such an obvious failure,” Slaney said.
A Last-Minute Appeal
In the meantime, the fight continues. Almost a week after the injunction verdict, the provincial court of Alberta accepted an immediate appeal to the decision.
The appeal is slated to be heard on January 27, just four days before the health-number policy is set to take effect, meaning it could hardly be going any closer to the wire.
But Schulz feels that she and her team are ready.
“We are cautiously optimistic that it’s moving forward so quickly,” she said. “Our legal team prepared our argument when the appeal was filed. They could go to court tomorrow and we would feel fully ready, we’ve always been prepared for that because of the looming deadline.”
“The case will be going forward regardless, but of course, we would prefer to not move forward with these regulations in place because they will immediately hurt people.”
With the judicial system bogged down as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Schulz and her allies are fully aware that the larger lawsuit case may not be heard for some time, meaning that their appeal could represent the last chance for months to defend SCS participants from new barriers.
“The case will be going forward regardless of the decision, but of course, we would prefer to not move forward with these regulations in place because they will immediately hurt people,” Shultz said. “That’s the whole reason we took this to court in the first place—we don’t want people to be harmed.”
Photograph via Pixabay