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Two-thirds say decriminalize pot

Level of support higher than ever, new poll finds

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OTTAWA -- Two-thirds of Canadians think the law should be changed so people caught with small amounts of marijuana no longer face criminal penalties or fines, a new poll has found.

The nationwide survey for Postmedia News and Global TV, which examined the state of Canadian values, revealed the public is distinctly offside with the Harper government on the issue.

Earlier this spring, Prime Minister Stephen Harper attended a summit of leaders from the Americas, where some called for a major review of the so-called war on drugs. Also this year, Liberals at a policy conference passed a resolution endorsing the legalization of marijuana.

That came after similar calls last year from a Global Commission on Drug Policy, which numbers former presidents of Colombia and Mexico, former United States secretary of state George Schultz and former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan among its members. That group also urged nations to consider "experimentation" with "legal regulation of drugs" such as marijuana "to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens."

At the Summit of the Americas in April, Harper acknowledged the international campaign to stem the drug trade isn't working, but he flatly rejected decriminalization as one potential solution.

However, the June 18-25 survey by Ipsos-Reid found Canadians are much more willing to entertain the idea.

It found 66 per cent of people believe "the possession of marijuana in small amounts" should be "decriminalized so that it no longer carries a penalty or fine." Another 34 per cent opposed the idea.

Support for decriminalization is strongest in Atlantic Canada (72 per cent) followed by British Columbia, Saskatchewan/Manitoba and Ontario -- in all three regions, support for decriminalization runs at 69 per cent.

Opposition to decriminalization is strongest in Alberta, where 42 per cent of people don't like the idea.

Ipsos-Reid president Darrell Bricker said the poll results are part of a trend in recent years that has seen support for decriminalization rising.

Ipsos-Reid has conducted similar polls on the issue over the past 25 years, and the data reveal that support is considerably higher now than it was in the past. In 1987, just 39 per cent supported decriminalization, rising to 55 per cent in 2003.

"It's all about tolerance," he said. "There's a general trend in Canadian values and it's really about, 'Live and let live. Don't tell me how to live my life. If you're different from me, that's OK. It's my job to learn how to tolerate that.' "

Moreover, he said the country has had "more experience" with marijuana.

"It's been a long time since Reefer Madness was a movie," he said of the 1936 cult film that warned of the dangers of marijuana use.

"We're a changing society. The culture is evolving."

The poll found support for decriminalization is strongest among upper-income earners. Three-quarters of those earning more than $100,000 a year think it should be decriminalized.

Fifty-eight per cent of those living in households with children supported decriminalization, while the figure rose to 67 per cent for those in households without kids.

At the Summit of the Americas, the leaders of Guatemala, Colombia, Mexico and Costa Rica spoke out in favour of exploring new approaches to the drug trade.

They noted drug cartels have grown more powerful as violence spreads throughout the region -- claiming more than 50,000 lives in Mexico alone -- and drug use has only increased in rich nations such as Canada and the United States.

By the end of the summit, leaders agreed to step up the fight against the drug trade, but there was no consensus on the merits of decriminalization. Canada and the U.S. strongly opposed that option.

Harper said while the "current approach is not working" and that countries must continue to fight transnational criminal networks, it isn't clear what should be done.

He spoke of how troubled he is by the continued "penetration" of the drug trade throughout Canadian society, in both urban and rural areas.

But he cautioned against "simple answers" such as decriminalization.

For its poll, Ipsos-Reid surveyed 1,009 Canadians through its online panel. It has a national margin of error of 3.1 percentage points. The margin of error is higher in the smaller provincial samples.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 2, 2012 A3

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