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Concern rising in Canada and the United States over opioid crisis

The ramifications of the use of prescription and non-prescription opioid drugs have devastated North America for the past few years.

The ramifications of the use of prescription and non-prescription opioid drugs have devastated North America for the past few years.

In Canada, the federal government calculated that Emergency Medical Services (EMS) dealt with more than 21,000 calls to respond to suspected opioid overdoses in 2019. In the United States, the White House has described the situation as “the worst drug crisis” in the country’s history.

When Research Co. and Glacier Media asked Canadians and Americans about the current state of affairs, the concerns are evident. In Canada, two in five respondents (39%) say the situation related to the use of prescription and non-prescription opioid drugs in their community is “a major problem” – a proportion that climbs to a staggering 53% in British Columbia.

Americans are decidedly more preoccupied with the opioid crisis than Canadians, with 53% of respondents in the United States deeming it a “major problem.” In this country, the Atlantic coast is struggling more, with 63% of residents of the Northeast saying the emergency is grave.

The ideal solutions for Canadians and Americans lie in addressing four key aspects: education, prevention, rehabilitation and safety.

Launching more education and awareness campaigns about drug use is a strategy endorsed by 84% of Canadians and 86% of Americans. Figuring out the best way to address the issue publicly and without stigma will be crucial at a time when slogans (such as the ill-fated “Just Say No” from the Reagan administration in the 1980s) can be futile.

One of the most pressing complaints is a lack of spaces for drug rehabilitation. We found that 78% of Canadians and 81% of Americans want to deal with this shortage. There is also a high level of support for reducing the prescription of opioids by medical professionals (73% in Canada and 76% in the United States).

The establishment of “safe supply” programs, where alternatives to opioids can be prescribed by health professionals, is endorsed by 70% of Canadians and 78% of Americans. This proposal used to be more contentious, particularly with centre-right voters. Right now, 81% of Republicans in the United States and 62% of Conservative Party voters in Canada are in favour of it.

About three in five residents of the two countries (59% in Canada and 60% in the United States) also support setting up more “harm reduction” strategies, such as legal supervised injection sites. In Canada, these facilities have operated for 17 years, but the long-awaited opening of the first one on American soil – in Philadelphia – has been delayed.

There is one strategy where the public is not quite ready to offer the same kind of validation. Support for decriminalizing all drugs for personal use stands at 34% in Canada, with 53% of respondents disagreeing with this course of action. A blanket decriminalization is slightly more popular in Quebec (38%) and British Columbia (37%), but certainly not at a level that would expedite action from local politicians.

In the United States, support for the decriminalization of all drugs stands at 47% and includes sizable majorities of men (61%) and Americans aged 35 to 54 (69%).

On the political front, Canadians are not particularly happy with Ottawa on this file, with just over a third of respondents (35%) saying Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the federal government have done a “very good” or “good” job to come up with solutions to deal with the opioid crisis.

The approval rating for the federal government on this issue pales in comparison with the high satisfaction with the way COVID-19 has been handled (64% the last time we checked). The numbers are higher when Canadians are asked about the efforts of their local member of Parliament (38%), their provincial representative (39%) and their mayor and council (40%).

Premiers and provincial governments have the highest rating on managing the opioid crisis at 43%, but – as is the case with the pandemic – not all provinces are created equal. While practically half of Quebecers and Albertans are satisfied (49% and 47%, respectively), the proportion drops to 41% in Ontario and 36% in British Columbia.

South of the border, incumbent U.S. President Donald Trump and the federal government have a higher approval rating on this issue than their Canadian counterparts (46%) and practically on par with Congress (44%). However, as is the case in Canada, Americans praise the role of their governors and state administrations (58%) and their mayors and local governments (also 58%) in attempting to face this crisis.

The numbers show that the use of prescription and non-prescription opioid drugs is a concern for many Canadians and Americans. In both countries, residents believe an all-inclusive approach – where information and rehabilitation are just as important as appropriate prescriptions and “safe supply” programs – is necessary to effectively curb the opioid crisis. We will have to wait and see if political leaders embrace the challenge. •

Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.

Results are based on online studies conducted from September 4 to September 6 among representative samples of 1,000 adults in Canada and 1,200 adults in the United States. The margin of error, which measures sample variability, is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points for Canada and plus or minus 2.8 percentage points for the United States.