Calgary woman seeking 'narrow, individual exemption' over Alberta opioid restrictions

Opioid restrictions fought

A Calgary woman suing the Alberta government over regulations that would prevent her from taking a potent opioid three times a day says she has been "utterly terrified" by the experience.

Ophelia Black, who turns 22 on Thursday, was diagnosed with severe opioid use disorder after she became dependent on the drug as a teen.

Black's lawsuit says she currently follows a treatment regimen that allows her to effectively manage her condition with hydromorphone instead of using street-sourced opioids such as fentanyl.

But the province's new standards require service providers to refrain from prescribing opioids for at-home use unless approved by a medical director.

Her lawyer, Avnish Nanda, argued Wednesday in Court of Queen's Bench for an emergency injunction that would allow her to continue with her prescription while the lawsuit is being decided in the courts.

"What Miss Black is seeking is simply to continue on to access her treatment … in a manner that she receives it today," Nanda told the court.

"In order for that to occur, what she needs under the regulation is a narrow, individual exemption."

Black is suing the province under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to put a halt to the new restrictions and to provide her with an exemption so she can continue to access the treatment.

Black's statement of claim says she began using opioids to cope with childhood trauma and that she was regularly sexually, physically and mentally abused by older men preying on her vulnerable condition. As a result, she began suffering from suicidal ideation, depression and other mental health issues.

Her claims have not been tested in court and no statement of defence has been filed.

Nanda said that given the trauma and history his client has endured, she is unwilling to access the new treatment. He said under the new program, Black won't get the medication she needs when she needs it and will turn to street-source opioids to self-medicate.

"We're talking about harms … that include death, that include acquiring a variety of other illnesses associated with street … opioid use," he said. "We're talking about a return to a life of sexual exploitation, physical exploitation and all the harms she managed to escape during this treatment program 20 months ago.

"In many respects, if this harm does befall Miss Black, she may not be here to continue on with her lawsuit."

Alberta government lawyer Nate Gartke argued that other options are available for Black and that she is making an active decision not to take the government treatment even though it's safer.

"I think it's largely a devil you know than the devil you don't situation," said Gartke.

"It's probably safer to crash and inject something you know than crashing and injecting something that is unknown."

Gartke said Alberta Health Services is willing to help her gain access.

Justice Colin Feasby said he would release his decision Thursday afternoon.

Black told The Canadian Press in an interview that travelling to and from the Opioid Dependency Clinic several times a day isn't feasible. She said she is grateful for the support she has received but hasn't been getting a lot of sleep.

"Last night I was utterly terrified because again I am never going to forget this. This is going to affect me for a very long time. Probably for the rest of my life," she said outside of court.

Black said she is prepared no matter which way the judge rules.

"I have to figure out what I can reasonably do. What I'm most worried about will be going back onto fentanyl and I don't want to do that. When I think about going back onto fentanyl I get this pit in the middle of my stomach," she said.

"I really hope that no matter what happens I will find a way to be safe and to keep the status quo as much as I possibly can."

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