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Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy
Canadian Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs
Volume I - General Orientation

Chapter 2 - Our Work

Taking opinions into account


Public opinion is hard to grasp, first, because it does not exist in itself but is created by the manner in which the pollsters' questions are asked, by the manner in which the media report a debate, and by a broader context of representations the actual determinants of which are never precisely known.

Understanding public opinion on a complex subject such as drugs is not a simple matter such as discovering what type of laundry detergent respondents will buy at the supermarket. A seemingly simple question quickly becomes complex once Pandora's box is opened. A public opinion poll may ask the public whether they are in favour of decriminalizing cannabis. However, do we know whether every respondent understands the term "decriminalization" in the same way? The complex nature of this term is addressed in Chapter 21. Do we know whether respondents are for or against decriminalization for the same reasons? And once it has been determined that a majority is for or against it, do we know how that public policy choice would be implemented?

If it is the case, taking opinions into account is a necessity in a democracy. For us, taking opinions into account meant we had two closely related responsibilities: first, it meant we had a duty to inform, indeed to educate, although we hope those who are offended by that term will pardon us for using it, but we are convinced that on public policy topics, which are societal issues, it is the duty of political leaders to transmit information that educates, not merely convinces. The level of knowledge about drugs, even about cannabis which is the best known drug, is often limited and wrapped up in numerous myths. Our second responsibility in taking public opinion into account was to go and discover it. We did so in three ways.

First, we publicized our work as widely and as openly as possible to enable everyone to learn about it and react to it. Many chose to do so by writing to us, although they were relatively few compared with the number of people in this country.

Second, we commissioned a qualitative public opinion study. The focus groups conducted across the country as part of that study are described in detail in Chapter 9.

Third, we held public hearings in various cities across the country (eight in all), thus enabling a certain number of citizens to come and tell us what they thought, what they knew and what they had experienced.

We are aware that informing and seeking public opinion also means having a hand in forming it. It is thus not a neutral activity.

 Interpreting in light of principles


All this knowledge, in the form of research and public opinion, still needs to be interpreted. Scientific knowledge is subject to constant verification. It at times contains contradictions, as will be seen in Chapters 7 and 8 in particular. Knowledge of public opinion necessarily remains fragmentary and evolving. Thus the importance of interpretation.

Beyond this, a public policy, as noted above, is not based on knowledge alone, no matter how rigorous. Guiding principles are necessary, principles that can permit an informed interpretation of data and assist in the establishment of conclusions. This is the subject of the next chapter, which will describe the method we used to determine our guiding principles and the principles themselves.



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