Forty per cent of Canadians in a recent survey said they support the notion of legalizing marijuana for recreational use, slightly more than those who said they oppose it.

Deloitte surveyed 5,000 Canadians recently for their views on marijuana, and the results suggest a country that is very much divided on a topic that the federal government is currently trying to clarify the rules on.

The survey was conducted online between March 13 and April 3 among 5,000 adults, 1,000 of whom self-identified as marijuana consumers after having been selected for the survey. There was representation from every province and territory and weights were applied to ensure representativeness by age and gender.

Among respondents, 21 per cent said they "strongly support" the idea of legalized and regulated marijuana for recreational purposes. The same number said they "strongly opposed" it.

However, 19 per cent said they "somewhat support" it while 15 per cent said they "somewhat oppose" the notion. 

The remaining 24 per cent said they neither support nor oppose the idea.

"Some people want to believe there's a stronger level of support," Deloitte's vice-chair Mark Whitmore said in an interview, "but the survey doesn't suggest that."

Those who favour recreational pot in the survey outnumbered those who oppose it in every province, except Alberta where opposition was at 39 per cent and favourability was at 36 per cent. But everywhere, the level of undecideds was somewhere around one quarter to one fifth of people.

"The level of division and indecision is not really surprising," Deloitte said, "Since no one knows what the market might look like, it's difficult for individuals to form a strong opinion on it."

Huge market potential

While a large number of Canadians may be unclear on their opinion, the market potential of legal pot is clear. The survey showed that 22 per cent of the Canadian adult population consumes recreational marijuana on at least an occasional basis now, even though it is illegal. And that figure doesn't include the seven per cent of respondents who currently consume it for medical reasons.

A further 17 per cent showed some willingness to try it if it were legal, which suggests the market could be large enough to include more than four out of every 10 adults in Canada.

"On the production side, supplying even the low-end estimate of the recreational market would require producing over 600,000 kilograms of marijuana annually, a significant increase from what the medical marijuana industry is currently capable of producing," Deloitte said.

That's big money. The base case is as much as $8.7 billion a year at current market prices — about the amount that Canadians spent on wine last year.

That figure doesn't include ancillary businesses such as paraphernalia, testing labs and security services. If they're factored in, the market potential jumps to up to $22.6 billion a year.

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That's as much as Canadians spent on all forms of alcohol last year, Whitmore said.

And that figure itself doesn't include the government's take through taxes. Deloitte's survey notes that the state of Colorado recently legalized marijuana for recreational use, and took in $52 million in taxes in the first year. Considering Colorado is one seventh the population of Canada, it's not hard to see a potential windfall for governments in Canada.

"It's obvious the opportunities are substantial," Deloitte said.

How to sell it

The survey also found some surprising conclusions in terms of Canadians preferences for how recreational marijuana might be sold. The most popular option, at 24.7 per cent, was to sell it via a pharmacy.

But other preferred distribution channels include:

  • 17.9 per cent who'd prefer privately owned marijuana retailers.
  • 17.6 per cent who'd prefer government-owned marijuana retailers.
  • 16.3 per cent who want it to be sold via various provincial liquor control boards.
  • 11.9 per cent who favour privately owned liquor retailers.
  • 11.7 per cent who think the best place to sell it would be at the supermarket.

Deloitte noted that pharmacies were the preferred choice among all respondents, but among those who self-identified as marijuana consumers, the preferred method was standalone marijuana retailers — preferably privately operated.

Whitman said there was a slight bias in favour of privately owned stores in two regions — B.C. and Ontario — where they currently operate, even though they are completely outside the law. "Dispensaries are completely illegal but people are getting more comfortable with them in BC and Ontario," Whitman said.

Finding a balance between wildly different expectations could prove to be a problem for policy makers if they go down that route, he added.

"The issue for regulators remains one of designing a system preferred by the current consumer or the non-consumer," the report said. "With the majority of the Canadian population still identifying as non-consumers, it's likely that decisions about where marijuana may be sold will ultimately be driven by that constituency."

While the report showed that there was very little division between men and women on whether they support or oppose the idea of recreational pot, there was definitely a generational divide.

"Perhaps unsurprisingly, recreational marijuana consumption tapers off with age, with millennials consuming more than their Gen X and boomer counterparts," the survey said.