Vote Compass: Majority of Canadians support softer marijuana laws

The majority of Canadians are in favour of either decriminalizing or legalizing recreational marijuana use, according to the latest findings of Vote Compass.

Even Conservative voters favour looser laws

Campaign 2015: marijuana

8 years ago
Duration 1:30
Party leaders have different points of view when it comes to use and legalization of marijuana

A majority of Canadians are in favour of either decriminalizing or legalizing personal marijuana use, according to the latest findings of Vote Compass, CBC's voter-engagement survey.

This applies not only to Canadians overall but also to those who identify as Conservative voters — who have historically favoured a strict drug policy.

According to Vote Compass, 75 per cent of Conservative supporters favour either decriminalization or legalization of marijuana for personal use, compared to 86 per cent of respondents overall.

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The findings are based on 14,502 respondents who participated in Vote Compass between Sept. 22 and Sept. 24.

Overall, 56 per cent of respondents said pot should be legalized, 30 per cent said it should be decriminalized and only 14 per cent said it should it remain a criminal offence.

In looking at the Vote Compass findings, "I think that most common-sense Canadians are moving in a direction of reform," says Donald MacPherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau sparked this debate two years ago when he said a Liberal government would move to legalize and regulate marijuana possession.

According to the Vote Compass results, Liberal-leaning respondents (70 per cent of them) are most in favour of legalization, followed by Green Party supporters (68 per cent), NDP supporters (64), Bloc Quebecois supporters (49) and Conservatives (38).

An equal number of Conservative supporters (38 per cent) favour decriminalization – meaning marijuana possession would result in a fine but not a criminal conviction – followed by BQ voters (36 per cent), NDP (27), Greens (26) and Liberals (23).

'A political tool'

Activist Ray Turmel is calling for the total legalization of marijuana in Canada, and made his views known outside Roy Thomson Hall on Sept. 28, the night the three main party leaders were holding an election debate on foreign policy. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

The Vote Compass results suggest that across nearly every category – from age to income to region – most Canadians favour a loosening of marijuana laws.

Even so, it continues to be a wedge issue among the main parties in the election campaign.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair has repeatedly favoured only decriminalization, saying he does not believe people should be jailed for marijuana use, whereas Trudeau has gone further, saying that he would seek to legalize pot, as well as regulate and tax it. (He has also admitted to having smoked it on a handful of occasions over the years.)

The Conservative Party, however, has signaled that if re-elected, it would uphold the status quo, wherein it is legal to use marijuana for medical purposes, but not recreationally.

"Unlike the other parties, we will not introduce misguided and reckless policies that would downplay, condone or normalize the use of illegal drugs," Stephen Harper said in August.

This sentiment echoed a radio ad the Conservative Party produced almost two years before the campaign started. In it, a concerned mother criticizes Trudeau's support of legalizing marijuana, suggesting it would make pot readily available to children.

The Conservatives have been using pot as a wedge issue, MacPherson says, "accusing Justin of wanting marijuana in grocery stores and to make it more available to young people."

This is ironic, MacPherson says, because during Harper's time in office, the federal government has helped develop one of the largest medical cannabis industries in the world.

"So I see the Conservative Party using it very much as a political tool, because the other parties have started to move more towards where Canadians are at."

Through internal polling done earlier this year, the government found that more than two-thirds of the Canadian public favours more lax marijuana laws.

"Conservative attack ads against Justin Trudeau earlier this year targeted his position on marijuana, but their internal polling probably reflected the results we see" in Vote Compass," said Clifton van der Linden, director of Vox Pop Labs, which created Vote Compass.

Demanding a supply plan

The party leaders hold differing views on the legal status of marijuana, even while most Canadians believe it should be decriminalized. (Christinne Muschi/Canadian Press)

MacPherson says it's possible there is even more support for legalization than it appears.

He says that, in his experience, "a lot of people don't even understand what decriminalization is. I suspect that about 25 per cent of those people [who say they support decriminalization] think that it's legalization, or some form of legalization."

But even if the Canadian public is becoming more receptive to the notion of legal marijuana, pot-friendly politicians must articulate what they would do to manage the supply of the drug, says Neil Thomlinson, a political science professor at Ryerson University in Toronto.

"To decriminalize or legalize without doing something about the supply side is a stupid public policy," he says.

Thomlinson acknowledges that many people have serious concerns about the link between drugs and organized crime, and "legalizing or decriminalizing [marijuana] without addressing the supply side is just going to strengthen the role of organized crime in providing it -- because there's no place else to get it."

Developed by a team of social and statistical scientists from Vox Pop Labs, Vote Compass is a civic engagement application offered in Canada exclusively by CBC News. The results are based on 14,502 respondents who participated in Vote Compass between Sept. 22 and Sept. 24.

Unlike opinion polls, respondents to Vote Compass are not randomly selected. Similar to opinion polls, however, the data are a non-random sample from the population and have been weighted in order to approximate a representative sample. Vote Compass data have been weighted by geography, gender, age, educational attainment, occupation, religion, religiosity and civic engagement to ensure the sample's composition reflects that of the actual population of Canada according to census data and other population estimates.