A Montreal harm reduction group is launching a legal challenge of the province’s COVID-19 curfew on Tuesday, saying the health measure violates the rights of safe injection site users.
According to Sibel Ataogul, a lawyer with Melançon Marceau Grenier Cohen, the curfew already includes an exception for intravenous drug users who frequent safe injection sites.
However, she says many users are afraid to inform police where they are headed if stopped after 9:30 p.m.
“It doesn’t seem to work to give an exemption paper to these people because they are very reticent, obviously, to give it to police. Because it can actually put them at risk for search and seizure and being arrested for possession of narcotics,” said Ataogul.
Giving this exemption paper to police is essentially an admission of possession of illegal drugs, Ataogul explained.
“So they stay at home and they don’t have clean needles, they don’t have clean equipment, they don’t have access to the nurses,” she said. “It raises the number of overdoses.”
Ataogul was hired by the Association Québécoise pour la promotion de la santé des personnes utilisatrices de drogues (AQPSUD) which she describes as being an organization for and by intravenous drug users.
On Tuesday, Ataogul will be asking for an emergency injunction to stop the curfew being enforced in three cities while the Superior court considers their request to have the measure declared invalid.
The three affected cities are Montreal, Quebec City and Gatineau.
Ataogul said that her clients are not opposed to health measures, they simply want the freedom to access safe injection sites without fear of being stopped by police.
“Intravenous drug users don’t just use drugs between the hours of 5 a.m. to 8 or 9:30 p.m. — this is about addiction, so it’s not something that you can just control,” she said.
She argues that the current system violates the rights of intravenous drug users and is not proven to be worthwhile in terms of its positive effect on transmission of the virus.
“The benefits that the population would get from a curfew are not proportional to the harm it causes these communities,” said Ataogul.
Need is urgent
Chantal Montmorency, general co-ordinator of the association launching the challenge, told CBC that drug users are afraid to get caught by authorities and prefer to risk overdose at home.
“It’s a trauma to have to talk to the police and we can’t trust them,” she said.
Montmorency added that for many addicts, the need is “urgent” and they can’t delay until the curfew lifts for fear of going into withdrawal.
She said at safe injection sites, staff are there to administer lifesaving medication in the event of overdoses. By staying home, drug users are taking their chances.
“People are afraid to die. They call us and they tell us, ‘What can I do? I’m afraid that my mom will find me tomorrow,'” said Montmorency. “The curfew is a real danger for people who use drugs.”
David Palardy, an intervention worker at Cactus Montreal Safe Injection Site, told CBC that he is aware of problems users have had trying to access centres like his under the curfew.
“Sometimes people will get arrested and the [exemption] paper is not enough,” he said. “We have people who have been arrested multiple times in the same night. They get fined even though they have permission to be around.”
Palardy said he’s seen a decline in users coming in after curfew, combined with an increase in overdose cases.
He said when the centre opened as a safe injection site four years ago, they dealt with overdose cases maybe once a week. These days, it’s a daily occurrence.
“We’ve had so many overdoses, specifically I’d say in the last few weeks, it’s unprecedented,” said Palardy.
He believes this is another unintended result of the curfew. Palardy explained that fewer dealers are operating in public after 9:30 p.m. and so users are buying contaminated product from people they don’t know.
“[At night] there’s less and less dealers around and the ones that are here, are usually the ones that have the worst batches of all,” said Palardy. “The drugs got worse with the pandemic.”