Alberta’s United Conservative Party is pledging to pass a law that would broaden involuntary treatment for people with severe drug addictions if re-elected to government on May 29.
The Globe and Mail revealed last month that the UCP was considering such legislation, which the party refers to as the Compassionate Intervention Act. The proposed law came under swift criticism from some experts who said it violates people’s Charter-protected rights and could further endanger drug users.
UCP Leader Danielle Smith and members of her staff have since described different versions of how the law would operate in Alberta, at times pointing to Portugal as a model.
High-ranking UCP members, on multiple occasions last month, said no decision had been made on moving forward with the legislation.
During a campaign news conference on Monday, Ms. Smith said the proposed law would provide family members, doctors, psychologists and police the right to petition a non-criminal judge to issue a treatment order.
The court could then divert someone who is considered a danger to themselves or others as a result of their substance use “to engage in treatment instead of jail.”
Ms. Smith said voluntary treatment would be the UCP’s “top priority” but there are cases where forced treatment is necessary. She said the law would not only address the unrelenting drug poisoning crisis but tackle issues of crime and social disorder, which she has repeatedly linked to drug use.
“Having an illness does not absolve anyone of their criminal responsibility. But there are people who are suffering, people who are an imminent danger to themselves and others who need a more assertive intervention to ensure they get better, to save their life and to keep our communities safe,” she said.
Treatment orders, she said, would be based on the needs of each individual and could include out-patient counselling, medical detoxification, in-patient programs and opioid agonist therapy.
The UCP did not release details on the allowable periods of confinement or whether an extension could be granted. It is also unknown what safeguards, if any, would be outlined in the act to protect against breaching rights enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and how disputes would be handled.
Ms. Smith said she’s confident the new law would be fully compliant with the Charter.
Last month, her chief of staff, Marshall Smith (no relation), told Global News that application for involuntary treatment would go before three commissioners, or potentially a separate Indigenous-focused panel. He said the individual at issue would also be assessed by a psychologist. These practices were not mentioned on Monday.
Alberta already has existing legislation that allows parents or legal guardians the right to petition the court to place young people into treatment against their will for a maximum 15 days. The Mental Health Act also allows for involuntary detainment in extreme cases.
Additionally, provincial drug-treatment courts provide people who commit non-violent offences the option to avoid prison by completing a drug-treatment program. However, it requires voluntary consent.
Dave Prisco, a spokesperson for the UCP, said the new law, while similar, would create a non-criminal process to hear applications for involuntary treatment. He noted that the existing youth program “only offers short stays.”
New Democratic Party candidate Lori Sigurdson said, in a statement, that the UCP’s scheme to mandate drug treatment against someone’s will is “doomed to failure, both from a clinical and legal standpoint.”
“An Alberta NDP government will support a range of necessary services from harm-reduction services, treatment beds, abstinence options, drug checking, access to naloxone and recovery,” Ms. Sigurdson said, noting the party’s planned investments in primary care, social housing and income supports.
The party has previously called for an expansion of supervised consumption services and safer supply options to reduce the death toll in Alberta – both of which were slammed by Ms. Smith on Monday. An average of four people die daily in the province from drug overdoses.