Asking supervised consumption site clients to show identification — even if it’s voluntary — will deter people from accessing life-saving services, harm reduction advocates argued in an Edmonton courtroom Wednesday.
Lethbridge Overdose Prevention Society and Moms Stop the Harm Society are seeking an emergency injunction to stop the introduction of a policy to ask supervised consumption site clients to provide their personal health number.
The groups are in the midst of a lawsuit they’ve filed against the Government of Alberta over new licensing requirements for supervised consumption sites that took effect Sept. 30th.
The province delayed a requirement for staff to collect health-card information until the new year, but with that deadline looming, the societies filed an emergency injunction application in an effort to stop the province from bringing in the id requirement while the lawsuit is ongoing.
Lawyer Avnish Nanda, who represents the societies, argued in Court of Queen’s Bench Wednesday that bringing in the policy will deter people from using the sites and increase overdose deaths.
He told court research shows substance users who fear criminalization and stigmatization may decide not to use the sites, instead opting to use in unsafe settings.
If someone refuses to provide their health information, they won’t be denied service, but Nanda argued that his clients’ application includes evidence that even asking will be enough to drive some substance users away.
“Even if there is an opt-out provision or mechanism, it will still cause the same effects,” he said.
Nanda also argued that the provincial regulations are out of sync with the federal government’s efforts to make safe consumption services more accessible for Canadians.
He urged the court to find that preventing the province from forging ahead with the regulation in the coming weeks is in the public interest because if people overdose and die, or if they contract illnesses such as HIV or Hepatitis C, the harm is irreversible.
Not a ‘gateway’ to disseminating health-care information
Lawyers for the Government of Alberta argued the province has standing to regulate sites because of its shared responsibility for health-care with the federal government.
They also contested that there was adequate evidence to show that asking for a health-care number would drive people away from using supervised consumption services.
“Merely showing your personal health number doesn’t open up a gateway to indiscriminate dissemination of your information,” lawyer Aleisha Bartier argued, adding that there are built-in protections that mean someone’s health record is only accessed by health-care workers under particular circumstances.
She said that while there is a provision under provincial legislation that allows police to access health records, that is only done in exceptional circumstances.
Bartier and her colleague Nate Gartke also told court that much of the evidence brought by the harm reduction groups should be inadmissible, arguing the harm reduction experts hadn’t been properly qualified as expert witnesses and that other witnesses speaking on behalf of substance users is hearsay.
Consider the ‘magnitude’
On the matter of irreparable harm, Gartke argued the public interest is served by being able to collect personal health numbers to connect substance users to other services, and said that even if the request for identification drives some people away, the judge must consider the whole picture.
“The court is required to look at the magnitude of the harm and how many people will be affected,” he said.
Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Paul Belzil is hearing the injunction application which continues Thursday, but said he plans to reserve his decision until the new year.
Alberta is on track to have the deadliest year on record for drug poisoning deaths. More than 1,000 people died between January and August this year.