News / Canada

Poll showing most Canadians want pot laws relaxed kept secret by Harper government

OTTAWA—A strong majority of Canadians think the federal government should either legalize marijuana or decriminalize the possession of small amounts, according to a new Department of Justice poll obtained by Torstar News Service.

The poll, kept secret by the Conservatives for months, found 70 per cent of respondents believe pot laws should be loosened.

Of the 3,000 respondents, 37.3 per cent said the government should legalize marijuana, while 33.4 per cent said the possession of small amounts should be decriminalized.

Only 13.7 per cent of respondents supported the status quo, while 12 per cent said they believe Ottawa should impose harsher penalties.

The Conservatives have made Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s pro-legalization stance a cornerstone of their recent attack ads, suggesting legalizing marijuana would make it the drug more accessible to children. But the poll numbers suggest more Canadians support Trudeau’s stance on marijuana, or the New Democrat Leader Thomas Mulcair’s support for decriminalization, than leaving the laws as is.

The Department of Justice commissioned the $175,000 Ipsos-Reid poll after the Supreme Court’s Bedford decision in December, which struck down certain prostitution laws as unconstitutional. The telephone poll focused almost exclusively on opinions on marijuana laws and prostitution, as did additional focus groups conducted by the pollster in seven cities.

While most respondents to the poll were in favour of loosening possession laws, the focus groups were less sure about the current laws and whether they should be changed.

“There was a great deal of confusion about whether the possession of small amounts of marijuana is a crime, a ticketable offence, or completely legal,” the report, which the Conservatives intended to withhold until the end of July, states.

“Participants often used the two terms ‘legalization’ and ‘decriminalization’ interchangeably and did not demonstrate a clear understanding of the distinction between the two.”

Still, when given background on current laws, most focus group participants said they’d prefer to see decriminalization — slapping smokers with a fine rather than a criminal record — or have the government leave the law as is.

According to the report, the groups did not show the same widespread support for legalization seen in the phone survey — although several “thought decriminalization would be a prudent first step before moving to legalization.”

Ipsos noted that neither marijuana laws, nor the prostitution issue that has made headlines in Ottawa since the introduction of Bill C-36, were top of mind for the focus groups. In fact, the phone survey showed that crime and safety issues in general ranked low on the list of priorities Canadians have for their governments.

Only 2.7 per cent of respondents to the phone survey mentioned crime and safety issues as a priority at all. That’s compared to 36.7 per cent who said that the economy was a priority, 19.1 per cent who felt health care was a priority, and 13.7 per cent who said the federal government should focus on the environment.

Among respondents’ priorities, crime and law enforcement issues ranked 19th.

“Even when prompted to name their top of mind crime and justice issue facing Canada, many (focus group) participants could not think of an issue they would want the federal government to focus on most,” the report states.

“Marijuana and prostitution were not mentioned at all. The top issue was making the justice system more strict . . . and putting victims of crime first in the justice system.”