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Blair Gibbs: As public opinion turns, B.C.’s failing drug policies could be deciding factor in the upcoming election

Commentary

Carl Gladue helps carry an empty coffin during a march to mark International Overdose Awareness Day, Vancouver, August 31, 2023. Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press.

The policies of a generation of public health activists and civil liberty campaigners have prioritized the rights of drug users over the community at large, in the name of eliminating stigma and improving “safety.” Not only has this policy agenda not worked, but it has become dramatically at odds with majority public opinion.

Since the public health emergency was declared in B.C. in 2016, powerful synthetic opioids have proliferated and the policy response has been woeful. In fact, we have empowered the highest-demand users, continued to disinvest in law enforcement, released the drug traffickers from any sustained threat of disruption, and, since 2021, liberated the street dealers to grow their customer base by decriminalizing not just possession, but open public use of these illegal substances.

Twenty years of essentially the same direction of policy has been tried, and every year the annual death toll increases, new excuses are made (the recession, austerity, the pandemic) and the same medicine is applied, just at higher doses. Safe consumption sites were followed by safe supply (the progressives won the language war from the start), and then destigmatisation was swiftly followed by decriminalisation.

The result should not surprise us—drug pharmacokinetics and the social effects of new synthetic substances are complex, but human behaviour and economic incentives still work the same way.

So here we are in 2024 with Vancouver and most of the cities of the Pacific Northwest bearing the brunt of this warped philosophy and two decades of denial and drift towards a laissez-faire toleration of hard drug use. This is combined with what Kevin Sabet has labelled a “defeatist attitude” by provincial bureaucrats who think suppressing demand is expensive and futile and any real recovery through treatment and community supports is not possible.

One feature of a healthy democracy is when the consensus of a governing elite falls apart or gets too far ahead of what the public will tolerate. The elastic eventually recoils. Even though public attitudes to drug use are complex, it has been apparent for some time that the residents of B.C.—the worst affected region by the overdose crisis and the epicentre of this progressive drug policy agenda—do not agree with the path that policymakers and health bureaucrats have set them on.

A surveyThe polling firm One Persuasion surveyed 803 Canadian adults online using a nationally representative panel in English. The survey was conducted from May 21 to 24, 2024. The survey’s margin of error is +/-3.5 percent, nineteen times out of twenty. Subgroups have larger margins of error. The results have been weighted for accuracy by age, gender, region, and past provincial and federal votes using the most recent census data from Statistics Canada. my firm recently commissioned shows how out of step this agenda has become from the mainstream views of B.C. voters. Our survey wanted to explore how the public understands the drugs and addiction issue, and what they support as the goal of drug policy. We found that a large majority strongly oppose the government’s approach to drugs, and most B.C. voters reject policies like safe supply and the harm reduction philosophy of drug activists in the province.

A majority of British Columbians (55 percent) disapprove of the provincial government’s record on drugs and addiction. Fewer than one in five approve of their record. More young people 18-34 disapprove than approve. Of those who voted NDP in 2020, twice as many (45 percent) disapprove as approve (23 percent) of the NDP government’s record.

To understand better how drugs and addiction might impact voter intentions for the upcoming provincial election in October, the survey asked respondents to rate the performance of the provincial government across key policy themes. Drugs and addiction is the area where voters deemed the government to be doing a bad or very bad job (76 percent)—higher than any other theme, including homelessness (73 percent) and the cost of living (72 percent).

Source: One Persuasion. Graphic credit: Janice Nelson.

A large majority, across education and income categories, thought the B.C. government had done a bad job on drugs and addiction. Almost half (46 percent) thought they had done a very bad job. Even two-thirds (65 percent) of 2020 NDP voters felt this way, which is very bad news for David Eby and any chance of motivating his supporters to turn out.

British Columbians are also at odds with the broader goals of drug policy being pursued at the present time. When asked which statement comes closest to their view, more than eight in ten (84 percent) of British Columbians said: “The most important goal for drug policy is… to make sure those who become addicted to drugs are guaranteed fast access to treatment and get supported to enter recovery, reconnect with family and rebuild their lives.”

Source: One Persuasion. Graphic credit: Janice Nelson.

Only a small minority (16 percent) thought the most important goal was “to make sure those who become addicted to drugs can access safer supplies of their preferred drug so they do not risk overdose, and only access treatment when they are ready.”

When asked about their opinion on drug use and how society should respond, British Columbians do not endorse the libertarian position which prioritises the freedom of drug users. Instead, they broadly support a more communitarian position on the issue. More than eight in ten (82 percent) believe that “Drug use impacts on other people and society should discourage drug taking, warn about its dangers, and expect drug users to engage in treatment.” Two-thirds of young voters 18-34 also support this statement, as do four in five NDP voters.

In contrast, only a small minority (18 percent) think that “Drug use is a matter of personal choice and society should respect people’s rights, provide safer supplies of drugs, and not stigmatize those who use drugs.” 

Public health awareness campaigns have focused on reducing stigma and harm reduction campaigners have argued that this is a major barrier preventing drug users from addressing their addiction and seeking treatment. British Columbians disagree. Of all the factors driving the current drug crisis, “’Stigma’ around drug use which means users are marginalised and left to fend for themselves” is deemed the least significant factor, ranked last out of 12 factors.

Highly potent synthetic drugs— which are cheap to produce, hard to detect, and easy to transport—are not going anywhere. What has to change is a policy agenda that has fueled demand and made the problem worse—not just for those suffering from addiction but the wider public too. Responses to this survey clearly suggest policies and the record of the Eby government in addressing drugs and addiction effectively will be a key deciding factor for voters when they come to vote in October’s election.

The new PROSPER group, just recently launched in Vancouver, offers a long-awaited alternative to this policy agenda based on investing in prevention, treatment, and recovery. They highlight a province like Alberta, which offers an alternative path that opposes decriminalisation and so-called safe supply and includes real investments in recovery services.

If the public were ever on board with B.C.’s policy agenda, they are not anymore. The tide of opinion has turned. Politicians in the province and across Canada need to catch up.

Patrick Luciani: Whether Biden or Trump wins, America is in for a rough ride

Commentary

A protestor demonstrates against Donald Trump amidst Trump supporters outside Manhattan criminal court, Monday, April 15, 2024, in New York. Stefan Jeremiah/AP Photo.

In the latest Hub book review, Patrick Luciani examines Rebellion: How Antiliberalism is Tearing America Apart—Again (Knopf, 2024) by Robert Kagan, which examines the polarized political moment that America faces as they get ready for a particularly contentious presidential election and the historical forces that brought them to this perilous place. 

Every American election is touted as the most important.

However, the 2024 rematch between Joe Biden and Donald Trump stands out, carrying a certain existential weight for the United States.

How did the U.S. get to a point where half of the electorate is prepared to vote for someone—now a convicted felon—who promises to reject the election results if he loses and will no doubt refuse to accept the legitimacy of the federal government? There’s no question that there are profound economic and social issues that have divided Americans, including the deepening divide between the rich and poor, especially since the Great Recession of 2008 and the destruction of middle-class jobs in America’s heartland.

Then there are the relentless political and gender identity policies that have pushed progressive ideas that have aggravated racial divisions and attempted to redefine long-accepted biological truths of what a woman is. The public is divided, and Congress seems nearly incapable of passing legislation that demands compromise with the other side. That the Ukraine war aid bill was passed earlier this year stands out as a near miracle.

However, there is another explanation other than Fox News or social media. In his latest book, Rebellion, Robert Kagan, a Brookings Institution scholar, argues that America’s current divide is rooted in the ideals of the American Revolution. For Kagan, the problem has always been the people and their beliefs.

A large segment of the population has never accepted the liberal principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence by America’s Founding Fathers. These principles claim all men are created equal based on natural rights that come with being human and not descended by providence, a monarch, or government. Slave-owning states never accepted the inherent equality of all; they insisted on a society dominated by whites and a patriarchy centred on Protestant Christian belief. They held firm in values from their ancestral homes of England and Scotland.

The idea of liberalism, as defined by Thomas Jefferson and inspired by John Locke, wasn’t simply an “outgrowth of Western Culture, the European Enlightenment or even the English constitution.” Liberalism wasn’t an inevitable or a natural progression of human political development, as Kagan emphasizes. The Founding Fathers knew the Declaration was essentially an aspirational document, hoping it would, in time, come to be accepted by all citizens. The ideals of the Declaration took hold in the North but were never accepted in an antiliberal or illiberal South where God and faith were at the centre of life.

States that allowed slavery believed the idea of universal, equal rights was a sham and an absurdity “that was contradicted by all human history.” The South thought the North was out of step with the broad sweep of history. But it was the South that was out of step—until now.

Once dormant for too long, antiliberalism is now on the verge of winning with the help of a Constitution and Electoral College initially designed to protect the minority. For many Republican Evangelicals, God had intervened in public affairs and sent a leader to save their country.

Historically, the Republican Party could always keep marginal but large segments of its members from electing disrupters and outsiders to its leadership. That party, now firmly under Trump’s control, can no longer claim to unsparingly uphold the Constitution. It seems all too willing to overthrow the system if necessary, as it tried to do on January 6, 2021.

Kagan puts most of the blame not on Trump but on once moderate Republicans who are too weak and timid to save their party. If Trump wins, it will be because the Republican voter let it happen.

But Kagan lets Democrats off too easily. Democrats under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have ignored signs of a divided America as an aberration to be ignored rather than understood and confronted. Flyover country wasn’t the future; obsessions with the environment and progressive social issues were.

While coastal democratic elites on both coasts got most of the wealth and good jobs, they ignored a growing segment of the white middle class suffering from declining incomes while government bureaucrats obsessed over transgender bathrooms and diversity programs that discriminate against whites and Asians. Excellence was no longer a priority; equity was. Democrats seem helpless in stopping the shift from protecting individual rights to group rights, a tension at the heart of modern liberal democracies.

Kagan also blames recent American immigrants, once loyal to the Democratic party, who now clamour for closing the immigration gates behind them. Even Left academics such as the late American philosopher Richard Rorty, no lover of conservatives, believed universities had gone too far in “sensitizing students to cultural differences” to the point that whites are psychologically damaged because of their skin colour. We see the results of campus revolts throughout North America.

Kagan believes that Trump carries the virus of American antiliberalism, and presents a clear and present danger if he retakes the White House. In the long run, Kagan is sure that future demographics still favour a multiracial and multicultural America. Regardless of who wins in November, America’s immediate future is in for a rough ride, along with the liberal dreams of America’s founders. For that, we can blame both parties.