Amid an opioid crisis, Canadians back ‘compulsory treatment,’ poll shows. But does it work?

Click to play video: 'New overdose statistics lead to new calls for decriminalization'
New overdose statistics lead to new calls for decriminalization
Feb. 7: There are growing calls for the decriminalization of hard drugs after new statistics illustrate the devastating death toll from illicit drug use in B.C. last year. Aaron McArthur reports – Feb 7, 2019

In 2016, over 3,000 people died. In 2017, just under 4,000. The latest statistics show 2018 is set to outpace them both.

This is the death toll of Canada’s opioid crisis, a continuing trend of addiction and overdose that has touched as many as one in five people across the country, according to a new poll by the Angus Reid Institute.

WATCH: Feb. 7 — Overdose crisis shows ‘neglected addiction care’ in B.C.

Click to play video: 'Overdose crisis shows ‘neglected addiction care’ in B.C.'
Overdose crisis shows ‘neglected addiction care’ in B.C.

The survey of more than 1,700 Canadians found an increasing number of respondents are calling opioids a “serious problem” or a “crisis” — 41 per cent considered it one, compared to 33 per cent, 14 months ago.

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But just how they want to see it tackled depends on which part of the country, and which “political sphere” you’re talking about — some potential solutions find support across the board, others leave Canadians divided.

READ MORE: B.C.’s supervised consumption RVs a ‘safe haven’

The Angus Reid Institute asked respondents to identify their support for any of three ways to approach drugs.

They were as follows:

  • Compulsory treatment“: a form of treatment in which patients are required to follow a plan committing them to regular medical appointments, medication, education and counselling
  • “Supervised injection sites”: facilities in which drug patients can consume substances in the presence of medical staff
  • “Decriminalizing all drugs”: an approach that involves lessening legal penalties for drug-related offences such as possession, as has been carried out in Portugal

Of all these approaches, the one that united Canadians the most was “compulsory treatment.”

This method found support all over the country, hitting over 80 per cent in every province and region except for Saskatchewan.

“Compulsory treatment” also found clear support across political boundaries — fully 84 per cent of Conservative-leaning respondents said they were in favour of it, compared to 89 per cent of Liberals and 87 per cent of people inclined to vote NDP.

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WATCH: Dec. 4, 2018 — The tragic impact of Canada’s opioid crisis on children

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The tragic impact of Canada’s opioid crisis on children

There may be plenty of Canadians who favour this course of treatment, but that doesn’t mean it’s been effective in the past.

Indeed, an academic study led by Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital found that “evidence does not, on the whole, suggest improved outcomes related to compulsory treatment approaches, with some studies suggesting potential harms.”

“Given the potential for human rights abuses within compulsory treatment settings, non-compulsory treatment modalities should be prioritized by policymakers seeking to reduce drug-related harms.”

The heavy support for compulsory treatment comes out of a desire to see a method that will help to “quell the deaths, quell the tragedy of addiction, and just the true human misery that comes with it,” Shachi Kurl, executive director of the Angus Reid Institute, told Global News.

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“I think for Conservative supporters, you see an idea or a proposed idea that is more on sort of the law-and-order side of the debate,” she said.

“Whereas for those on the left side of the political spectrum, it’s still about ensuring that people are treated.”

Responses were much more divided when it came to the other two methods.

Supervised-injection sites found clear backing in most provinces — over 60 per cent of respondents were in favour of it in B.C. (69 per cent), Manitoba (64 per cent), Ontario (63 per cent), Quebec (78 per cent) and Atlantic Canada (69 per cent).

In other words, all but the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan were in favour.

READ MORE: 13 Albertans died every week of apparent fentanyl overdoses in 2018 — Alberta Health

Support for supervised injection was fairly evenly divided in both provinces, though the differences fell pretty close to the margin of error.

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Kurl said supervised injection was a “very politicized issue” under the Conservative government of prime minister Stephen Harper.

In 2008, the Conservatives decided to end a federal exemption for the InSite supervised injection facility in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside — an exemption that prevented staff and drug users from being arrested while supervising and using drugs there.

WATCH: Dec. 18, 2018 — Vancouver mayor overdose task force makes recommendations

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Vancouver mayor overdose task force makes recommendations

The federal government’s opposition to InSite went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled that closing the facility would violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Both Alberta and Saskatchewan offered heavy support to the federal Conservatives.

“It did not surprise me that the two provinces in the country that indicate the highest levels of support of the Conservative Party of Canada are not in support of a policy that was opposed by a previous Conservative government, or vice versa,” Kurl said.

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READ MORE: Canada is not set up to legalize all drugs. But it could be — experts

Most divisive for respondents was the issue of decriminalizing all drugs.

That’s an approach that has been adopted in Portugal, where drugs were decriminalized by changing possession from a criminal to administrative offence in 2001.

Drug possession would be penalized with a fine instead of time behind bars.

WATCH: Nov. 28, 2018 — Where is the political will to stop the fentanyl crisis?

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Death rates in Portugal have since fallen to some of the lowest levels in Europe — 4.5 deaths for people aged 15 to 64 years old per million population in 2014.

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That was below the European average of 19.2 deaths per million.

In Canada, however, respondents didn’t quite seem sold on the idea of decriminalizing drugs.

READ MORE: Pot is legal, but that doesn’t mean Canadians think other drugs should be — Ipsos poll

The idea didn’t find overwhelming support in any province. The strong support came in B.C., where it was 56 per cent; the weakest was in Saskatchewan, where it was 42 per cent.

Support for the idea also depended on one’s political affiliation. Sixty-eight per cent of NDP-leaning respondents said they were in favour of decriminalizing drugs, compared to 65 per cent of Liberal-leaning respondents.

The idea generated the support of only 34 per cent of Conservative-leaning respondents.

This, despite the legalization of marijuana across Canada last year.

Marijuana, she said, is seen as a more benign drug.

“The idea of talking about decriminalizing all drugs, heroin, cocaine, other controlled substances, I think that continues to be a mental hurdle for more than half the country,” Kurl said.

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She added, however, that “the fact that nearly half of Canadians are saying, ‘This is something we’re prepared to say we favour,’ suggests just how desperate Canadians are to find some fixes to the toll that opioid addiction is taking on their communities.”

  • With files from Amy Judd and Rebecca Lindell


The Angus Reid Institute conducted an online survey from February 1 – 6, 2019 among a representative randomized sample of 1,723 Canadian adults who are members of Angus Reid Forum. For comparison purposes only, a probability sample of this size would carry a margin of error of +/- 2.0 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. Discrepancies in or between totals are due to rounding. The survey was self-commissioned and paid for by ARI. 

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