Since 2016, more than 23,000 Canadians have lost their lives to opioid overdose.
What began as a situation that primarily affected urban and suburban areas can now be described as a countrywide health crisis—one that finds challenges in two vastly different realms: the trafficking and sale of illegal substances and the prescription of authorized pharmaceuticals.
In the latest survey by Research Co. and Glacier Media, 45% of Canadians said the current situation related to the use of prescription and non-prescription opioid drugs in their community is “a major problem.” This represents a six-point increase since the last time we asked this question in September 2020.
The level of concern about the opioid crisis grew across most of the country. Majorities of residents of British Columbia (58%, up five points) and Alberta (55%, up 16 points) now consider the situation affecting their communities as “a major problem.” They are joined by 49% of Ontarians (up seven points) and 46% of Atlantic Canadians (up 17 points).
Few Canadians believe that elected politicians are giving this crisis the attention it requires. Just over a third of Canadians (34%, down one point) think Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the federal government are doing a “very good” or “good” job managing the current situation related to opioid use.
The numbers are slightly better for premiers and provincial governments (39%, down four points). However—as has been the case with the management of the COVID-19 pandemic—not all regions are equal. British Columbia is ahead with 43% (up seven points), followed by Ontario with 35% (down six points), Quebec with 34% (down 10 points) and Alberta with 28% (down 19 points).
The level of satisfaction is slightly lower for mayors and councils (37%, down three points), Members of Parliament (33%, down five points) and members of provincial legislatures (33%, down six points). The statistics are harsh: fewer than two in five Canadians think their elected representatives are doing the right things to deal with the opioid crisis.
In spite of the heightened concerns about the size of the problem at hand, confidence in political leaders is eroding. Some Canadians also appear to be losing faith when assessing possible solutions. We continue to see sizeable majorities of the country’s residents who are in favour of specific ideas, but not with the same enthusiasm that we reported in 2020.
As was the case last year, Canadians are more supportive of solutions that attempt to stop addiction from beginning or from continuing unabated. More than three-in-four respondents to our survey are in favour of launching more education and awareness campaigns about drug use (77%, down seven points) and creating more spaces for drug rehabilitation (76%, down two points).
A plan to reduce the prescription of opioids by medical professionals is supported by almost seven in ten Canadians (69%, down four points). Local newspapers have featured many stories where people were initially exposed to opioids while recovering from injury or surgery.
Majorities of Canadians are also in agreement on a couple of initiatives that used to be controversial but have seen wider adoption across the country: establishing “safe supply” programs where alternatives to opioids can be prescribed by health professionals (61% down nine points) and setting up more “harm reduction” strategies, such as legal supervised injection sites (56%, down three points).
The one issue that remains off-limits for a majority of Canadians is the proposal to decriminalize all drugs for personal use. This year, a third of Canadians (33% agree with this course of action, while more than half (54%) disagree. These numbers are practically unchanged since 2020.
In the infancy of direct discussions about the legalization of marijuana, we consistently saw the idea garnering the support of close to half of Canadians. Over time, a majority of the country’s residents sided with cannabis legalization, and the process to create a framework to actually allow it to happen was not met with animosity from most Canadians. This is simply not the case right now with the decriminalization of other currently illegal substances.
To understand where this debate might be heading, we need to look at how other previously contentious ideas were first greeted by Canadians. “Safe supply” and legal supervised injection sites did not have the same level of acceptance in the early years of this century that they enjoy today. The work of elected officials who kept these policies in the minds of residents enabled Canadians in other parts of the country to look at things differently.
Some provincial governments can start to take more steps to deal with the complexities of the opioid crisis. Canadians may not be ready to embrace the concept of a blanket decriminalization, but they certainly believe elected officials should do more on issues such as awareness and rehabilitation.
Results are based on an online study conducted from October 25 to October 27, 2021, among 1,000 adults in Canada. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region in Canada. The margin of error—which measures sample variability—is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.