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Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy
Cannabis Control Policy

 Cannabis Control Policy: A Discussion Paper

 Health Protection Branch

Department of National Health and Welfare

January 1979


Public and Professional Attitudes

Demographic surveys have been used to canvass public attitudes toward cannabis and appropriate cannabis control measures. These polls are exclusively conducted among adult populations and are difficult to compare because of the array of legal alternatives presented to respondents. However, the results show uniform dissatisfaction with the current control regime.

An April 1977 Gallup poll found that about 37% of the responding national sample thought "possession of small amounts of marijuana should be a criminal offence." A slightly higher proportion, 38%, thought simple possession should "be an offence subject only to a fine — similar to a traffic violation", and 24% thought simple possession should "not be an offence at all". (Ottawa Citizen, May 14, 1977:7) A second national survey, conducted in the fall of 1977 for Weekend Magazine (1977:3), asked only if marijuana should be "'legalized" in Canada. There was no explanation of "legalization," a term that ordinarily connotes licit distribution as well as use, but approximately 37% of those who answered the question thought this approach a "good thing." The remainder thought legalization a "bad thing."

The most recent attitudinal survey was deliberately designed to reflect a full range of realistic legislative options in a clearly comprehensible manner. This survey was sponsored by the Addiction Research Foundation of Ontario and was conducted by the Gallup organization as part of their September 1978 national poll. (The Journal, Nov. 1978:1; Gallup Omnibus Study, Sept. 1978) Of those who responded, approximately 90% of those surveyed, about 35% favoured retention of the status quo, 15% thought simple possession should be a crime subject to fines only, 24% thought simple possession should not be a criminal offence, although trafficking activities should remain so, and 26% opted for commercial cannabis distribution, like alcohol, in government-licensed stores.

In both Gallup polls, one in the spring of 1977 and the other in the fall of 1978, about two-thirds of those who responded were opposed to maintaining the present legislative regime. The latest poll indicates that half the Canadian adult population, including about 60% of those between 18 and 30, is prepared to remove all criminal sanctions, including fines, for simple possession of cannabis. Further, over half of these persons favour a legal distribution system akin to that presently employed for alcohol. Since some liberalization is apparent between the 1977 and 1978 polls, and since young adults more frequently choose the reform options than older Canadians, the likely direction of public attitudes will increasingly be away from criminal measures and towards more tolerant or even approbative control regimes.

Most of the relevant Canadian professional associations have expressed similar sentiments. As long ago as 1972, the Pharmacological Society of Canada endorsed the Le Dain Commission's recommendation that simple possession no longer be an offence. (The Journal, Aug. 1, 1972:1) The Canadian Medical Association publically opted for "decriminalization" during the 1975 Senate hearings regarding Bill S-19. More recently, the Canadian Bar Association adopted a resolution recommending the removal of all criminal penalties for the possession, cultivation and non-profit transfer of small amounts of cannabis intended for personal adult use. (National, Sept.-Oct. 1978:19)

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