Legalize it? Canadians say yes, but that doesn’t mean they find smoking weed ‘acceptable’

Legalize it? Canadians say yes, but that doesn’t mean they find smoking weed ‘acceptable’

By Ian HollidayResearch Associate

April 28, 2016 – By this time next year – assuming the federal government makes good on its promise to introduce legislation in spring 2017 – marijuana legalization will be imminent, and most Canadians will be pleased with that fact.

As seen in the Angus Reid Institute’s recent poll on the subject, the vast majority of Canadians support legalizing marijuana, though as we’ll see later in this analysis, they’re divided on whether using the drug is “acceptable.”

The ARI survey asked the obvious question (should pot be legal or not?) in two different ways: First, as a face-off between two very broad options (make it legal or keep it illegal), and later as a five-point scale, ranging from total prohibition on one extreme to “legalized, and loosely controlled” on the other.

In each case, the total proportion of Canadians who want to end their country’s nearly century-long prohibition on marijuana adds up to just under 70 per cent (this includes 14 per cent who choose “decriminalization” – rather than outright legalization – on the more nuanced question):

Angus Reid Institute

These are the two camps of public opinion when it comes to marijuana legalization in Canada. Obviously, there are significant differences of opinion within the two camps – discussed at length in the full ARI report – but each side is united by its belief that, at the most basic level, pot should (or shouldn’t) be something you can get arrested for having.

So it’s notable, then, that the two camps don’t manifest themselves when asked a third, highly related, but slightly different question: Is using marijuana “acceptable” or not?

Here’s the breakdown of overall responses to this question:

Angus Reid Institute

As the graph shows, Canadians are overwhelmingly accepting of marijuana use when it’s recommended by a doctor, but they’re split basically down the middle on using marijuana for recreational purposes.

Keep in mind that this question was asking about acceptability, not legality. Respondents were asked to leave aside the legal status of the drug and think about only their personal opinion on it (read the exact wording of the question here).

The fact that many more Canadians think marijuana should be legal than think it’s actually OK to use the drug is significant. It implies either a segment of the population that takes a libertarian, “I wouldn’t do it, but I think you should be free to do it if you want to” approach to legalization, or a segment that bases its conception of acceptability on legality (i.e. “Marijuana use is currently illegal. I follow the law. Therefore, I find marijuana use unacceptable.”), or, more likely, some combination of the two.

Regardless of their reasons for it, those who say “make it legal” in the face-off question are more divided on the acceptability question:

Angus Reid Institute

This graph highlights what may be a key reason for the shift in public opinion on the legalization of marijuana since the 1990s: Many Canadians now divorce their opinion on the legality of the drug from their personal feelings about it. Nearly three-in-ten supporters of legalization don’t find recreational use of the drug acceptable, but they still believe it should be made legal.

Thinking about this another way, we see that support for legalization outpaces belief in the acceptability of recreational marijuana use, regardless of whether people would actually use the drug if it were legal.

As seen in the following graph, fully half (51%) of those who wouldn’t use marijuana if it were legal today still support legalization, even though the vast majority of this group (71%) doesn’t believe using the drug for recreational purposes is acceptable:

Angus Reid Institute

This gap is significant, and a testament to the work marijuana advocates have done over the years to persuade the public – even people who don’t want to use the drug themselves, and don’t actually approve of its use – to support their cause.

Image Credit: Chuck Grimmett

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