Despite the best efforts of the Conservatives to use Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's support for marijuana legalization against him, his position may not be a political liability after all, according to a just-released poll commissioned by the federal Justice Department earlier this year.
A phone survey conducted by Ipsos Reid between Jan. 30 and Feb. 7, 2014, found that 70 per cent of Canadians want to see the current laws at least relaxed — and one in three backs full legalization.
- Read the full report and download data tables
- Marijuana advocate Marc Emery vows 'political revenge' against Tories
- Marc Emery, the 'prince of pot,' may be a liability for the Liberals
When asked how the government should "deal with" marijuana, the most popular option was full legalization, which was supported by 37 per cent of respondents, followed by 33 per cent who backed the decriminalization of "small amounts of marijuana" by imposing a fine instead of a criminal record.
Support for legalization was highest in British Columbia, at 46 per cent, followed by Atlantic Canada at 41 per cent, with Ontario at 37 per cent, Quebec at 35 per cent, Alberta at 34 per cent and the Prairies at 32 per cent.
Just 14 per cent sided with the status quo, while only 12 per cent wanted to see penalties increased and three per cent either didn't know or had no response.
Strong support for medical marijuana
Asked whether legalization would lead to an increase in marijuana use, only 38 per cent of respondents agreed, with 53 per cent predicting that it would stay the same, with an additional six per cent of the belief that it would actually decrease use, and three per cent who didn't know, or had no response.
The survey also found that 83 per cent of respondents either strongly or somewhat agreed that marijuana "should be legally available for doctors to prescribe to their patients."
But just 42 per cent agreed, either strongly or somewhat, that companies "should be allowed to produce and promote the sale of marijuana just like tobacco and alcohol," with disagreement notably higher for women at 63 per cent, compared with 48 per cent among men.
In fact, tobacco companies are barred from advertising their products outside of print ads in magazines with an adult readership higher than 85 per cent. Six provinces have also outlawed retail displays of cigarettes in convenience stores.
Results could bolster pro-pot activist
Ipsos Reid polled a total of 3,000 randomly selected Canadian adults by phone — including both land lines and cellphone numbers — which gives the poll a countrywide margin of error of plus or minus 1.8 per cent, 19 times out of 20, with higher error rates for data broken down by region.
The final reports from both the focus groups and the phone poll were posted to the online archive of government-commissioned public opinion research data on Wednesday night — just one day before the six-month deadline for filing such material with Library and Archives Canada was set to expire.
The results may bolster B.C. pot activist Marc Emery's bid to make legalization of the drug a ballot box question during the next federal election.
Emery, who was recently freed after spending four years in a U.S. federal prison after being convicted of conspiracy to manufacture marijuana, is currently waiting for the paperwork to go through that will allow him to return to Canada.
"My own government betrayed me and I'm going to wreak an appropriate amount of political revenge when I get home and campaign against the Conservative government," he told CBC News in an exclusive interview from a private deportation facility in Louisiana.
"Hopefully we'll do a good job and get the young people to vote for Justin Trudeau's Liberals and get that legalization agenda enacted in Canada as soon as possible."
Earlier this month, Emery announced that he and his wife, Jodie, are planning to hold rallies across Canada in support of Trudeau, though the Liberals have distanced themselves from the Emerys.
"We are not aware of Mr. Emery's plans and he is not affiliated with us in any way," Liberal spokeswoman Kate Purchase said in an email to CBC News Thursday.
Tories have targeted Trudeau's pot views
Last month, Vancouver Conservative MP Wai Young sent out a flyer accusing Trudeau of promoting marijuana to children.
The leaflet, which featured a photo of a young person about to light a joint, claimed that Liberal policies would make it easier for children to smoke pot, an allegation local Liberal riding president Stewart McGillivray denied.
"Justin Trudeau has been extremely clear that we don't want our children more easily able to access this, that it does have harmful effects in many cases." he told CBC News.
"I think Wai Young knows that, so I wish she would act a bit more maturely on the issue."
Trudeau's pot stance also provided fodder for the Conservatives during last month's byelection in Scarborough-Agincourt, as reported by The Canadian Press.
As was the case in Vancouver, the leaflet also asserted that the Liberal leader "wants marijuana in local stores, just like alcohol and cigarettes."
Voters, however, appear to have been unmoved: the Liberals won the byelection by 60 per cent, an even higher level of support than former MP Jim Karygiannis garnered in 2011.
Even so, there's no indication the Conservatives are reconsidering their current strategy.
In response to a CBC News query on Emery's plan to campaign in support of Trudeau, a spokeswoman for Justice Minister Peter MacKay reiterated the most recent talking points put out by the party.
"In the next election, Canadians face a choice: Justin Trudeau, whose idea of a 'star Liberal' is a convicted drug dealer and the self-proclaimed 'Prince of Pot', and whose main policy is the legalization of marijuana, or Prime Minister Harper, who has the best job creation record in the G7 since coming to office," said MacKay's communications director, Mary Ann Dewey-Plante.
"While the Liberals like to point to experimental laws in some U.S. states, President Obama opposes legalization – reiterating his opposition even after the recent New York Times editorial," she continued.
"The Liberal Party wants to make smoking marijuana a normal, everyday activity for Canadians. We, on the other hand, want to protect children and teens from the harmful effects of smoking pot on their health and development.”
Focus groups show little support for legalization
Meanwhile, the Conservatives may be heartened at the seemingly contradictory results from the 14 focus groups that Ipsos Reid conducted across the country at the same time.
"Most participants said they would like to see the federal government either leave the laws how they are now, or decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana with a fine rather than a criminal record," the polling firm reported.
"There was some support for legalizing marijuana in the B.C. groups, but even in B.C., more participants favoured the status quo or decriminalization."
Outside of B.C., they concluded, "there was very little support for legalization of marijuana."
Just 1% see crime as priority issue
Both the focus groups and the phone surveys suggest that so-called law-and-order issues simply don't seem to be on the political priority list for most Canadians.
According to the phone poll, 28 per cent of poll respondents wanted to see the government focus on "economy/unemployment/jobs," followed by health care at nine per cent, and just one per cent citing crime.
"Crime and justice issues barely registered in participants’ top of mind priorities for the federal government," noted the report on the focus groups.
"Even when prompted to name their top of mind crime and justice issue facing Canada, many participants could not think of an issue they would want the federal government to focus on most."
"The top issue was making the justice system more strict (e.g., longer sentences, tougher on young offenders) and putting victims of crime first in the justice system," the report concluded.
"Marijuana and prostitution were not mentioned at all."