In the six weeks since the Quebec-wide curfew went into effect, it has destabilized support systems for people who use drugs. Under the Coalition Avenir Quebec government, the 8 pm to 5 am curfew has now been extended until further notice in parts of the province. People who use drugs face a grave dilemma: Follow the curfew, or follow harm reduction best practices like not using alone.
“Isolation increases the risk of fatal overdose,” said Frankie Lambert, communications manager of the Association Québécoise pour la promotion de la santé des personnes utilisatrices de drogues (the Quebec Association to promote the health of people who use drugs; AQPSUD). “This government does not care about people who use drugs.”
Lifesaving safe consumption sites (SCS) are sitting mostly empty, with people who use drugs fearful of risking an interaction with police by traveling to a site. On January 24, a Mohawk woman lost her life to overdose.
“Amanda was a strong-spirited and determined Indigenous woman who would still be alive today if she had been [able to access SCS] to consume the night she died,” said Sophie Hart, founder and director of community group Meals for Milton-Parc. “[Imagine] trying to explain to a cop that you have left your residence to attend [SCS] to use a substance that is illegal … substance use does not stop between 8 pm and 5 am. It may actually be increased during those times.”
Hart is frustrated by the disconnect between policy and practicality. “There are [SCS] in Montreal, but people are afraid to use them, especially after 8 pm,” she said.
SCS have been especially empty since the start of the curfew.
The curfew, which is being justified as a public health measure, is straining decades of work by harm reductionists to curb HIV and hepatitis C, as well as overdose deaths. SCS save lives—when they’re accessible—by offering drug-checking services as well as lifesaving medical intervention. Overall SCS visits are down, and increased policing at night has escalated the pre-existing tension of accessing harm reduction services even during the day. SCS have been especially empty since the start of the curfew.
“People will use drugs at home, alone, and what we fear is an increase in deadly overdoses,” said Julien Montreuil, deputy director of L’Anonyme, an SCS in Montreal. “What we also fear is a lack of access to sterile supplies. We fear an increase in sexually transmitted and bloodborne infections.”
The curfew is also another brick in an ever-growing wall of bad policies that lead to over-policing, exacerbating an already fraught relationship between police and people who are structurally marginalized.
Quebec Premier Francois Legault nonetheless defended the curfew and the role that officers play in enforcing the policy, stating, “I have 100 percent confidence in these police officers.”
Clients at L’Anonyme tell a different story. “We have people who, when the police realized they were coming to a supervised consumption site, got searched and charged for simple drug possession,” Montreuil said.
With the history of racial and social profiling in Montreal, the decision to make the Quebec municipal police force (Service de police de la Ville de Montréal; SPVM) responsible for enforcing the curfew is overly optimistic at best and deadly at worst.
Montreal’s four SCS have stated, collectively, that travel certificates—documents that can be shown to the police as evidence of being allowed out past curfew—are not sufficient.
“We can give a travel attestation to people, but often they simply don’t want to deal with police,” said Montreuil. “People who had a travel attestation [have] had it ripped up by police officers.”
Meanwhile, communities are grappling with an overdose crisis that killed at least 431 Quebecers in the first nine months of 2020—a record high, and almost certainly an undercount.
The creation of the curfew, and its subsequent extension, compound the dangers of an increasingly unpredictable drug supply, leaving people who use drugs at unprecedented risk.
Why are we subjected to a curfew that puts lives in danger when high transmission zones—such as schools, factories and construction sites—have remained open? Why did the government, after extending the curfew, make a calculated decision to slowly reopen nonessential shopping and businesses on February 8?
“The curfew is not a sanitary measure, but more so a social control measure.”
“It’s very important that sanitary measures related to the pandemic be respected,” Montreuil said. “However, for us, the curfew is not a sanitary measure, but more so a social control measure. People who are the most endangered, who are the most marginalized, will be most affected.”
Ill-conceived policies threaten marginalized communities rather than protect them. It is imperative that the Legault government step back from sweeping measures that brush our communities under the rug, and instead step up with policies that protect us all.
COVID-19 has shown us that a community is only as safe as those it leaves most vulnerable. “The government has abandoned people who use drugs,” said Lambert. “No more and no less.”