Court rejects bid for emergency halt to Quebec curfew, saying not enough proof it harms drug users
MONTREAL -- A Quebec court rejected a challenge to the province's curfew on Friday, saying there's not enough proof it has led to a rise in overdoses to grant an emergency injunction, as advocates requested.
A Montreal harm reduction group mounted the legal challenge, saying the curfew, currently at 9:30 p.m. in Montreal, puts intravenous drug users at risk, while saying there's no proof it actually cuts down on COVID-19 transmission.
While the curfew may have been inspired by public health reasons, it “doesn't have benefits for all the population,” said Chantal Montmorency from AQPSUD, a Quebec association that advocates for and represents people who use drugs.
The group's lawyer, Sibel Ataogul, presented her arguments to the judge Thursday morning by videoconference.
On Friday, upon hearing the judge's decision, Montmorency said she was "disappointed" and that she believes lives could have been saved by halting the curfew.
Technically, drug users are still allowed to travel at night to safe-injection sites under curfew rules, her group argued in court, but in reality, the threat of being stopped by police is a deterrent.
Instead of risking being harassed by police, as they fear, many choose to shoot up in their homes instead, the group said.
Along with COVID-19, the jump in drug use and fatal overdoses is also a compelling public health crisis, Montmorency said.
"There really is an increase in overdose[s] and that is why, for us, this is an emergency," she said.
The judge hearing the case ultimately sided with the government's key witness, a public health doctor who argued the curfew is part of an overall strategy to fight the pandemic.
While the judge accepted that the curfew does harm drug users, he said the proof presented so far doesn't rise to the level needed to justify granting an emergency injunction from the preliminary hearing.
SKEPTICAL ABOUT CURFEW'S EFFECTIVENESS
Montmorency said her organization has worked in public health for 10 years and knows how to prevent the spread of infection -- and the curfew isn't achieving that.
“We know harm reduction. We know how to prevent the propagation of viruses,” she said. “That's all we do and we know the curfew isn't a harm reduction measure.”
AQPSUD called for an emergency injunction to stop the curfew in Montreal, Gatineau and Quebec City, arguing the curfew violates the rights of safe injection site users and causes harm.
In addition, Ataogul argued in court that there's no direct proof linking the curfew to a reduction in the transmission of COVID-19.
Earlier this year, a judge ruled homeless people would not have to abide by the curfew, determining it discriminates and disproportionately harms them.
And while there is already an exemption to the curfew for those who use safe injection sites, they have to carry a letter from the local health authority.
In reality, that doesn't work, said Montmorency.
“When you show this authorization, it tells [them] that you are going to use drugs, so it tells the police that you probably have drugs on you. So they can just check and get you on simple possession,” she said.
ALREADY A SURGE IN OVERDOSES, GROUP SAYS
They say the curfew has already led to a surge in overdoses.
Other than deterring them from safe-injection sites, a curfew also forces a change in routine for some drug users, which can lead them to take more drugs before 9:30 p.m., the group argued.
Many dealers aren’t selling after curfew, so people will go to strangers for their supply and are more likely to get contaminated drugs.
The government's legal counsel argued there was no proof an increase in overdoses is linked to the curfew.
Jean-Francois Mary of needle exchange program and safe injection site Cactus said he has seen these issues first-hand.
Early on in the pandemic, the group’s needle exchange service went from 3,000 visits a month to less than 1,500.
People adjusted to the measures and exchanges went back up to about 80 per cent, said Mary, but with the curfew, he saw numbers drop again, and as many as half haven’t come back.
“People have adapted to all the other measures but with the curfew on top of it, it was just too much,” he said.
Cactus is seeing overdoses at a rate four to five times higher than before the pandemic.
“Overdoses are almost a daily occurrence in our services right now,” he said.
His main concern is that users aren't able to access clean needles and equipment.
“To me, that's the biggest worry, because this is long-term health issues for people and a major population public health issue,” he said.
He's anticipating a surge in cases of HIV and Hepatitis C in the months to come.
The advocates are considering whether to appeal Friday's ruling, they said, but an appeal hearing would likely take months to arrive, and most likely the curfew will be scrapped before then.