Three-quarters of Torontonians Believe Changes Need to be Made to Canada’s Current Approach to Drugs

Support for a Public Health Approach to Drugs in Canada (61%) Heavily Outweighs Opposition (26%) Among Toronto Residents

The author(s)

  • Brad Griffin President, Canada, IUU
  • Jennifer McLeod Macey Vice President, Canada, Public Affairs
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Toronto, ON — In response to a dramatic increase in overdose deaths in Toronto in the past few years, Toronto Public Health is actively implementing the Toronto Overdose Action Plan. A component of this plan was fostering a public dialogue with respect to what a public health approach to drug policy in Canada should look like. Toronto Public Health partnered with Ipsos to conduct this dialogue, which consisted of four main components:

  • Two in-person community dialogue sessions, one downtown and one in Etobicoke, open to anyone interested in participating. Sixty people participated in the community sessions. Most participants were community members already engaged in this topic (e.g. service providers, family/friends of people who use drugs) and people who use drugs;
  • Interviews with 20 people who use drugs at four community agencies in the north, central, east and west areas of the city;
  • An open online survey available to anyone interested in participating. A total of 346 people completed the open online survey. Those who participated in the survey were a mix of community members, service providers/volunteers, people who use/used drugs and family members of people who use/used drugs. And;
  • A representative general public survey of n=503 Toronto residents.

All Four Components of the Engagement Affirmed the Belief that Changes Need to be Made to Canada’s Approach to Drugs.

Eight in 10 respondents from the open-link engagement survey say the current approach to drugs in Canada is not working and changes need to be made (78%), another 2 in 10 think modifications should be considered (19%). While softer in their assessments, three-quarters of Torontonians in the general public survey think at least some changes need to be made (29% not working well, changes need to be made; 45% working somewhat, modifications should be considered).

At the community dialogue sessions, many expressed the current approach treats drug use as a criminal issue, not as a social and public health issue. Many attendees are passionate that the current policy is expensive, hypocritical and unsympathetic to people who use drugs, and does not address the root causes of drug use (trauma, mental health issues, pain management, etc.).

“The war on drugs stance has not resulted in a decline in use of drugs. So, it’s obviously not working, and I think it’s just time to try something else. Why keep banging your head against the wall using the same tactics? It’s clearly not having an effect.” – Community Dialogue Attendee

Torontonians Support a Public Health Approach to Drugs

Both the open-link engagement survey and the representative survey of Torontonians reveal that a majority are supportive of a public health approach to drugs that are currently illegal. A public health approach to drugs includes increased access to comprehensive, evidence-based prevention, harm reduction and treatment services. It can also include the decriminalization of drugs for personal use and possession or the legal regulation of drugs. Under decriminalization, the possession of drugs for personal use is allowed, but the production and sale of drugs remains illegal. Under legal regulation, the possession of drugs for personal use is legal under certain circumstances, and the production and sale are regulated by government in various ways (e.g., like alcohol and tobacco).

Nine in 10 respondents of the open-link survey support a public health approach to drugs in Canada (91%). The open-link survey captures the opinions of those most engaged with the issue so it’s not surprising that they would be more supportive than the general public (91% vs. 61%). Still, even among the general public, opposition is low (26%) as some of those who are unsupportive sit on the fence (13% neither support nor oppose).

While the majority are supportive of this proposition, many admit to not having high levels of understanding about the health and social harms caused by current drug policies. Half of the engaged open-link respondents say they know a lot about the health and social harms caused by drug policies (49%). While a slim majority of 55% of Torontonians say they have at least some knowledge about the health and social harms, a full 45% admit to knowing little or nothing at all.

Most who attended the community dialogue sessions were confident they know “a lot” about the drug policy in Canada and the social harms cause by the criminalization of certain drugs, which is not surprising given that many who attended have been exposed to the social harms to some degree through their work, volunteering or lived experiences. Additionally, many interviewed felt they know a lot or fair amount owing to their personal experience, as well as others they know.

Many Believe the Federal Government of Canada Should Consult with the General Public on Decriminalizing the Possession of All Drugs for Personal Use, As Well as the Option to Legalize and Regulate Drugs

In the open-link survey, 8 in 10 said yes, the government should consult with Canadians on decriminalizing all drugs (80%), and three-quarters believe they should do the same with legal regulation of all drugs (75%).

That said, others felt the outcome would depend on who was consulted (i.e., their knowledge, experience and attitudes towards drugs and drug use) as that would have an impact on the outcome. People with lived experience of drug use feel it is very important to ensure substance users are included in the conversation. Some who attended the community dialogue session expressed concern that a consultation with the public would take too much time and they felt strongly that something needs to be done now.

About the Study

These are some of the findings of an Ipsos study conducted in May 2018, on behalf of Toronto Public Health. The engagement consisted of four components:

  • Community Dialogues – Two (2) community dialogue sessions were conducted – one May 22, 2018 in downtown Toronto and the other on May 24, 2018 in Etobicoke. There were approximately 60 attendees over the two sessions. Sessions consisted of expert presentations, participants answering survey and related questions on keypads, engaging participants in smaller group discussions, and a facilitated plenary.
  • Lived Experience Interviews – Twenty (20) onsite interviews were conducted with people with lived experience of drug use from May 28th to May 31st, 2018. Interviews (20-30 minutes in length) were hosted at four community agencies in the north, central, east and west areas of the city. The interview questions mirrored those asked in the community sessions and the online survey.
  • Open Link Engagement – An open link engagement survey was available online from May 9th to 28th, 2018. The survey was promoted broadly by Toronto Public Health. Toronto Public Health also maintained a dedicated website for this initiative with information about how to participate. The survey mirrored the questions asked in the community dialogue sessions. In total, 346 people Toronto residents responded to the survey.
  • General Public Online Survey – A general public survey online survey was conducted between June 4th and 5th, 2018, among a representative sample of 503 Toronto residents. Weighting was then employed to balance demographics to ensure that the sample's composition reflects that of the adult population according to Census data and to provide results intended to approximate the sample universe. The precision of Ipsos online polls is measured using a credibility interval. In this case, the poll is accurate to within ±5.0 percentage points, 19 times out of 20, had all Toronto adults been polled. The credibility interval will be wider among subsets of the population. All sample surveys and polls may be subject to other sources of error, including, but not limited to coverage error, and measurement error.

For more information on this news release, please contact:

Brad Griffin
Senior Vice President, Head of Qualitative Canada
+1 416 324-2288
[email protected]

Jennifer McLeod Macey
Vice President, Canada
Ipsos Public Affairs
+1 416 324-2108
[email protected]

About Ipsos Public Affairs

Ipsos Public Affairs is a non-partisan, objective, survey-based research practice made up of seasoned professionals. We conduct strategic research initiatives for a diverse number of American and international organizations, based not only on public opinion research, but elite stakeholder, corporate, and media opinion research.
Ipsos has media partnerships with the most prestigious news organizations around the world. In Canada, Ipsos Public Affairs is the polling partner for Global News. Internationally, Ipsos Public Affairs is the media polling supplier to Reuters News, the world's leading source of intelligent information for businesses and professionals. Ipsos Public Affairs is a member of the Ipsos Group, a leading global survey-based market research company. We provide boutique-style customer service and work closely with our clients, while also undertaking global research.

About Ipsos

Ipsos is an independent market research company controlled and managed by research professionals. Founded in France in 1975, Ipsos has grown into a worldwide research group with a strong presence in all key markets. Ipsos ranks fourth in the global research industry.
With offices in 88 countries, Ipsos delivers insightful expertise across five research specializations: brand, advertising and media; customer loyalty; marketing; public affairs research; and survey management.
Ipsos researchers assess market potential and interpret market trends. They develop and build brands. They help clients build long-term relationships with their customers. They test advertising and study audience responses to various media and they measure public opinion around the globe.
Ipsos has been listed on the Paris Stock Exchange since 1999 and generated global revenues of €1,782.7 million in 2016.

The author(s)

  • Brad Griffin President, Canada, IUU
  • Jennifer McLeod Macey Vice President, Canada, Public Affairs