Liberal government’s own polling said Canadians worried about drug decriminalization

Liberal government's own polling said Canadians worried about drug decriminalization
Photographs of overdose victims are displayed as members of Moms Stop the Harm mark International Overdose Awareness Day, in Vancouver, B.C., Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023.

Months before British Columbia sought to scale back its drug decriminalization pilot project, the federal government’s own polling suggested to officials that a majority of Canadians believed the policy would lead to an increase in overdoses.

The results of the 11-page survey by the Privy Council Office, the wing of the federal bureaucracy that supports the Prime Minister’s Office, also suggests Canadians were split over whether decriminalization would make their community any less safe.

“I guess what people are thinking is that (decriminalization) will somehow enable drug use,” said Thomas Kerr, a professor and head of the division of social medicine at the University of British Columbia and the director of research at the B.C. Centre on Substance Use.

Similar opinions were expressed over supervised drug consumption sites and even needle exchanges, Kerr says, adding that fears they would lead to increased use didn’t play out “in reality.”

He also said: “People have really overestimated the impacts of decriminalization, both positive and negative.”

Decriminalization has grown into a political lightning rod over recent weeks after the B.C. NDP government reversed course and asked that police again be empowered to arrest people or seize illicit drugs when they are being used in public spaces.

The move followed months of concern over public drug use, including inside hospitals.

The federal Conservatives have seized on the issue and pressed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals to rule out granting a federal exemption to any other jurisdictions wishing to pursue decriminalization programs in an effort to curb opioid deaths.

Opposition Leader Pierre Poilievre describes the policy as the legalization of hard drugs.

Federal Mental Health and Addictions Minister Ya’ara Saks has defended the decision to allow B.C.’s pilot project as one tool to combat the overdose crisis, which she says is being fuelled by an increasingly toxic drug supply.

RELATED: Dr. Bonnie Henry says ‘legalizing and regulating’ would minimize harms of toxic drug crisis

She recently rejected Toronto’s longstanding application to undertake a similar program, telling The Canadian Press it was because its application lacked limits on the amount of drugs an individual could possess and any age restrictions.

There is currently no new application from the city or from places like Halifax or Montreal, Saks recently told the House of Commons after being pressed by the Tories.

“People are dying because of street drugs; they are not dying because of decriminalization,” Saks said.

More than 40,000 people have died from opioid-related deaths since 2016, which is when Health Canada started tracking what Kerr called “Canada’s worst public health crisis in modern history.”

B.C. became the first jurisdiction in Canada to pilot the decriminalization of small quantities of illicit drugs like heroin, fentanyl, cocaine and MDMA, for three years beginning in January 2023. The province has long been ground zero for the country’s overdose crisis.

Officials and others promoting decriminalization say it is meant to be a way to reduce stigma for drug users and try to get them connected to help, instead of sitting in jail.

In the weeks after the pilot launched, the federal government decided to poll Canadians on their attitudes about decriminalization and drug use in general.

Health Canada published the survey’s findings last fall on a section of the government’s website containing infographics, bulletins, advisories and other publications on health-related issues.

The Privy Council Office surveyed two random samples of 2,000 Canadians early last year.

It found that 49 per cent of respondents said they preferred focusing on health and social services when it came to addressing substance use among drug users, as opposed to 35 per cent who felt there was also a role for police.

While women and those with higher incomes tended to favour a health-focused approach, the findings suggested men and lower-income earners were more likely to prefer a police response.

It noted that “Canadian born respondents” were also more likely to favour a health approach, while immigrants were more likely to see room for police.

When it comes to the issue of decriminalization, the survey found that 51 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement, “I believe decriminalizing drugs would increase harms associated with drug use such as overdoses.”

That is compared to 38 per cent who said they disagreed and seven per cent who said they neither agreed nor disagreed.

READ MORE: Mother whose son, 16, died due to drug overdose speaks out to prevent more deaths

The survey results suggest a majority believe decriminalization would make accessing services like recovery and treatment easier. A majority also said they have empathy for those struggling with drug addiction.

Still, 43 per cent of respondents said they agreed it would make their community less safe, compared to 46 per cent who disagreed. Another eight per cent didn’t answer.

Saks’s office highlighted the finding that suggests people empathize with those struggling and believe decriminalization will make supports easier to access.

“From the outset we’ve been clear, the exemption would be rigorously monitored, evaluated and adapted as needed, guided by the dual objectives of public health and public safety,” it said in an email.

“We are focused on ensuring people who use drugs can be moved from the criminal justice system to the healthcare system.”

Kerr said while he believes there is room for public education when it comes to specific harm-reduction policies, it would be “highly irresponsible” for policy-makers to base decisions around public sentiment.

Nonetheless, he said it appears “the pendulum is swinging” and the country is experiencing a “right-wing” backlash against certain drug policies.

That includes not just decriminalization of possession but also the provision of pharmaceutical alternatives for drug users in an effort to keep them away from toxic drugs — an approach known as safe supply.

Poilievre has taken specific aim at such programs, promising that a future Conservative government would place greater focus on treatment and recovery options.

“The question always becomes, what do you do for people when they’re not in treatment, or whether they’ve just left a treatment program and have relapsed,” Kerr said.

“We need to keep these people alive and disease free, and living with some dignity.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 31, 2024.

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