Canadian attitudes on marijuana: a timeline analysis

The cannabis landscape in Canada is evolving, as are attitudes towards the drug. This transformation is reflected in both the marketplace and in the political realm. For example, despite remaining federally illegal, many local jurisdictions are tolerating, and in some cases regulating, pot dispensaries. Furthermore,...

The cannabis landscape in Canada is evolving, as are attitudes towards the drug. This transformation is reflected in both the marketplace and in the political realm. For example, despite remaining federally illegal, many local jurisdictions are tolerating, and in some cases regulating, pot dispensaries. Furthermore, there has been a substantial increase in patients and licensed producers under the federal medical cannabis regime, a system that will also sanction personal cultivation at the end of this month.

So what do these attitudinal changes look like over time? Also, what methods are being used by survey experts to uncover our perspectives? Below I examine data from polls produced and administered by Forum Research Inc.

Past year cannabis use

National (2013):

  • 13% of Canadians admitted to consuming the drug in the previous twelve months

National (2015)

  • 19% of Canadians disclosed using marijuana in the past year

A couple of possibilities can be interpreted from these numbers. One prospect is that there was an actual increase in the amount of Canadians who consumed marijuana. However, it’s also possible that the data reflects a greater willingness to report use of the drug.

Legal frameworks

National (2011 to 2013):

  • Support for legalization dropped from 40% to 36%
  • Approval for decriminalization rose from 26% to 34%
  • Favour for the status quo declined from 20% to 15%
  • Endorsement for increased penalties grew from 11% to 13%

Here we see a moderate reduction in approval for legalization and a somewhat significant rise in support for decriminalization. There was also a modest fall in support for the status quo with a very small rise in support for increased punishment. Overall, these changes indicate attitudinal shifts. Most people seem to have moved from the status quo and legalization to decriminalization. A smaller portion opted for stricter sanctions.

National (2015):

  • Support for legalization went up to 53%
  • Approval for legalization and taxation was 35%
  • Favour for decriminalization went down nominally to 33%
  • Endorsement for the status quo remained the same at 15%
  • Support for increased penalties decreased to 12%

Interestingly, support for legalization (the first choice) was larger than approval for legalization combined with taxation. For the former, the question posed to participants was “Do you agree or disagree marijuana should be legal in Canada?” Meanwhile, statistics for the latter and for the subsequent options set out above were derived from being asked “How do you think the government should deal with marijuana: legalize and tax it, decriminalize small amounts, leave the law as it is or increase penalties?”

These figures present a substantial disparity in support for ‘legalization’ when that choice was altered to include taxation. There are some possible explanations for this. The first is that the difference in support (18%) represents those who prefer legalization without the drug being controlled and taxed by government. Alternatively, the deviation signifies an initial knowledge gap among respondents in that legalization was misunderstood to include, or be the same as, decriminalization.

In addition, it’s worth recognizing that when support for the status quo and for higher penalties is combined, we can see that 27% of Canadians were opposed to making the laws less stringent. That isn’t much lower than the percentage of those who endorsed decriminalization or  legalization with taxation as optimal policy options.

Distribution models

National (2015):

  • Support for corporate cultivation with government distribution was 40%
  • Approval for personal consumer production and circulation was 15%
  • Favour for a joint corporate, government, and consumer model was 17%
  • Opposition to all of the above was 28%

Surprisingly, the research showed only a small variation in opinion across each province. Another notable point is that the options are both limited and broad. To be sure, more choices do exist, such as allowing medical dispensaries to sell recreational cannabis, as is the case in Colorado, or private recreational-only stores, which are common in several US states. Plus, there are private alcohol establishments in some regions of Canada (e.g. British Columbia) that could sell marijuana. Moreover, in Quebec, alcohol is sold in convenience stores and gas stations, and so cannabis could be as well.

Ontario (2015):

  • Support for dispensaries was 57%
  • Support for the Liquor Control Board of Ontario was 44%

Toronto (2016):

  • Support for dispensaries was 57%

Vancouver (2016)

  • Support for dispensaries was 64%

As mentioned earlier, regional divergence on distribution models was relatively nominal in the 2015 poll. However, there were significant distinctions in the above surveys, which were conducted at local levels. This is likely, at least in part, because of differences in survey methodology. That is, the local polls provided different distribution alternatives. Additionally, the measurements in those surveys were separated, as the questions focused only on one particular policy option at a time. Nevertheless, some of these results are a pertinent reflection of the Canadian landscape, as public and political views towards dispensaries are quite polarized.

 

In this article

Join the Conversation