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A man waits to enter the Safeworks supervised consumption site at the Sheldon M. Chumir Health Centre in Calgary on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

A lawyer for groups that advocate for drug users has written to the Alberta Court of Appeal, seeking an emergency hearing to stop a provincial policy requiring people to identify themselves before they use a safe consumption site.

The policy, which requires users to show their personal health number, is due to go into place Jan. 31, but lawyer Avnish Nanda was not able to persuade a judge to grant an injunction to halt its implementation. In a ruling last week, the judge acknowledged that while the policy could hurt some drug users, it was in the public interest for it to go ahead.

“It’s rare to obtain an expedited hearing but we are seeking one because of the serious harms that will occur if the injunction dismissal is not overturned, including, as the judge who heard the injunction application accepted, mass death,” Mr. Nanda told The Globe and Mail.

In his ruling Jan. 10, Justice R. Paul Belzil of the Court of Queen’s Bench in Edmonton rejected the harm-reduction groups’ application for an interlocutory injunction, which would have immediately suspended the implementation of the requirement.

“I am satisfied that the applicants have met the burden of establishing that irreparable harm will occur to some illicit drug users if the Interlocutory Injunction is not granted,” he wrote.

However, he concluded that the requirement is part of Alberta’s overall plan to formulate addiction policies and to halt the policy would be against the public interest.

“If this Interlocutory Injunction application succeeded, Alberta’s ability to formulate addictions policy, pending the outcome of the action, would be severely restricted.”

In the application for an urgent hearing, Mr. Nanda argues that the judge did not give sufficient weight to the deaths that he agreed would result.

Mr. Nanda also argued that the requirement to show a personal health number (PHN) is only a small part of the government’s overall addictions strategy.

“Either the justice did not consider the deaths of many Albertans the impugned state action would cause as part of his analysis, or he failed to properly weigh this factor, or he found that preventing these deaths was not of sufficient public importance to temporarily curtail a narrow aspect of” the policy.

Petra Schulz, co-founder of Moms Stop the Harm (MSTH), said the ruling was a shock, especially when the judge agreed that the policy could cause harm. MSTH has been battling the policy along with the Lethbridge Overdose Prevention Society. Mr. Nanda is representing both groups.

“It seems like the lives of the people we love and care for don’t matter in this case. And that is why we are looking at filing an appeal and why we will continue this legal action.”

Last year marked a record for the most deadly year of drug poisonings in Canada, and Alberta was among the provinces with the highest numbers of overdose deaths.

Health Analytics Alberta has shown that at least 1,372 people died from drug poisoning in Alberta from January to October, 2021, with the past two months still being accounted for. Comparably, 1,087 people died from drug poisoning in Alberta over the same period in 2020.

“We have never lost this many people,” said Elaine Hyshka, assistant professor at the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health.

“Alberta has an unprecedented overdose epidemic right now and we can’t really afford to be making it harder to access,” she said.

Ms. Hyshka and her team conducted a survey across Alberta and found that hundreds of people who use the sites were not willing to go back or go at all if they had to show their personal health numbers.

Ms. Hyshka said that the PHN is associated with one’s full name, date of birth, location of residence, and other identifying factors. Additionally, it could easily be linked to other health records so a doctor could see if the patient was attending the consumption site, and many patients may not want to disclose that to their providers.

Mike Ellis, Alberta’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, said he was pleased with the court’s decision in a statement on the government’s website. His office denied The Globe’s request for further comment on this issue.

In his statement, Mr. Ellis said that the PHN requirement is not about denying access to a supervised consumption site, but rather to help improve the quality of services being offered to people with addictions, and to ensure that they are better connected to the health care system.

In an open letter, Moms Stop the Harm is now asking Carolynn Bennett, federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions and Associate Minister of Health, to intervene.

Ophelia Cara, a user of the sites, said the stigmas around substance use are undeniable, and many people will not feel comfortable giving their PHN if they even have one in the first place.

“Someone may not feel comfortable giving their personal health number because of the fallout that they’ll experience from that, either being treated differently by their doctor or by medical health professionals,” she said.

Ms. Cara noted that at a time when hospitals are strained because of Omicron patients, enacting a policy that could lead to more overdose emergencies doesn’t make sense.

“For the people that use substances, that makes us feel terrified because the government doesn’t care about us. For the people who do not use substances, but perhaps know someone who does, they don’t want to lose the person that they love.”