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Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy
Canadian Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs
Volume I - General Orientation


According to one of our witnesses:

From public opinion data assembled over the last 10 years, some by Health Canada, we know that more than two thirds of Canadians think that no one should go to jail for cannabis use, and approximately half of Canadians explicitly advocate the decriminalization or depenalization of cannabis use. This has been consistently the case over the last 25 years. In other words, there has been a public opinion message for a quarter of a century that so far has been ignored by lawmakers and policy-makers. [1][10]

One of the biggest limitations of opinion polls is their superficial nature: the questions are often inserted into more general surveys covering a variety of subjects, there is little opportunity to ask multiple questions, and the meaning of the terms is rarely explored. For example, the terms “legalization” and “decriminalization” do not necessarily mean the same thing to all respondents. But general surveys are not able or rarely have the means to bring those differences to light. If the survey asks a single question about marijuana along the lines of “are you in favour of decriminalizing the possession of small quantities of marijuana?”, there is no way of knowing what the respondents think when they hear “decriminalizing” and “small quantities”. For some, decriminalization may mean no penalty; for others, it may mean a fine. And the difference between 5 grams and 30 grams is enormous.

Like the media, and in an equally complex way, surveys help shape public views. And also like the media, it is hard to determine the role they play in changing attitudes and, more importantly, behaviour. With those reservations out of the way, we provide in the following paragraphs a sample of data from a number of different surveys.

In the 1994 national survey on alcohol and drugs, the respondents were asked to give their opinion on marijuana: 27% said that possession of small quantities should be legal; 42% said it should be illegal but should not result in a penalty or should result in a fine only; and 17% said that possession of marijuana should lead to a possible prison sentence for a first offence. Men and younger people are more inclined to favour legalization of marijuana, as are residents of British Columbia, Quebec, Alberta and Ontario.[2][11]

In 2000, the National Post reported the results of a survey which showed that almost two thirds of Canadians were in favour of decriminalizing marijuana and that the punishment for possession of small quantities for personal use should be a fine.[3][12]

More recently still, in a May 2001 survey, 47% of Canadians said they favour legalization of marijuana, up from 31% in 1995 and 26% in 1975.[4][13]

A smaller survey of public perceptions was conducted in Quebec in 2001 using a sample of 2,253 respondents (response rate 70%).[5][14] The survey focused solely on drugs, drug addiction and HIV and measured knowledge, perception of risk, perception of drug addicts, and possible policies and measures. What makes this type of study interesting is that because the questions were limited to drug addiction and drugs, it provides clearer and more comprehensive information on certain issues.

The study showed that the majority (66%) of Quebeckers think that drug use is increasing. It also showed that “[translation] marijuana is in a class of its own” in terms of perception of risk because “[translation] only one in four people felt that marijuana is dangerous the first time it is used, which is less than the opinion reported for tobacco, even though tobacco is legal. Moreover, marijuana is the only substance that a relatively large number of respondents described as never harmful to health. […] People consider it less dangerous than tobacco.”[6][15] The surveys also show that marijuana is the substance least likely to lead to addiction: approximately 15% of respondents think that marijuana creates a dependency the first time it is tried, whereas more than 40% said it would have to be used every day and 8% said that marijuana never creates dependency.[7][16]

As to opinions on public policy, the study showed a clear preference for prevention and education over controls and repressive measures. Almost 35% of those asked what measures would be likely to eliminate drug problems said that the controlled sale of marijuana and hashish would help reduce the adverse effects. According to the authors, the public “[translation] is very open to some form of legalization of hashish and marijuana. More than 90% said that people with certain serious illnesses should be allowed to get prescription hashish and marijuana in order to relieve their pain. Far fewer people, although still a majority (60%), would be willing to allow those drugs to be used under certain conditions perhaps like alcohol.”[8][17] Fewer than 40% thought that current laws help prevent people from using (and approximately 60% disagreed somewhat or completely with that statement).[9][18]

In Ontario, the school survey also looked at students’ perception of risk and disapproval of marijuana use. The results are shown in the following table.  


Perceptions of Ontario high-school students, 1989-2001 [10][19]









Disapprove of experimentation



Grade 7

Grade 9

Grade 11

Grade 13











































Disapprove of regular use



Grade 7

Grade 9

Grade 11

Grade 13











































Associate high risk with experimentation



Grade 7

Grade 9

Grade 11

Grade 13











































Associate high risk with regular use



Grade 7

Grade 9

Grade 11

Grade 13












































These results show that Ontario high-school students’ attitudes on all indicators are either less alarmist or more liberal, depending on one’s point of view. Fewer students disapproved of experimentation (one or two times) with marijuana and regular use in 2001 than in 1989. However, more students still disapproved of regular use than occasional use. The level of disapproval decreases as level of schooling increases. Further, fewer Ontario students associated a high risk with marijuana use in 2001 than in 1989, but still almost three times as many associated a high risk with regular use than with experimentation. It bears noting that students who associate a high risk with regular marijuana use now make up less than half the student population, down from three quarters in 1989.

By and large, these data are in line with the results of the study the Committee commissioned from the firm Léger Marketing.[11][20] The objective of this qualitative study using focus groups was to determine whether it was possible to identify elements that could serve as the basis of a social consensus on the use of cannabis. More specifically, the study was designed to determine the overall perception of drug use in general and cannabis in particular; the images associated with cannabis; attitudes and social behaviour toward the use of cannabis for recreational purposes; fears and prejudices; knowledge of the legislative framework; and the expectations of citizens with regard to a public policy on the use of cannabis for recreational purposes. Léger held 16 focus groups and conducted 15 in-depth interviews in Montreal, Trois-Rivières, Halifax, Winnipeg, Vancouver, Toronto and London. In all, more than 130 people took part in the study. In each city, there were at least two focus groups, one with adults over the age of 18, and one with youth 14 to 17 years of age.

The participants in the focus groups did not spontaneously mention drugs as everyday concerns; they reported being more concerned about health, education, employment and poverty. When the subject was raised by the interviewers, the participants first named crime related to the sale of drugs and drug smuggling as primary concerns, not drug use by Canadians. In some cities (Montreal, Vancouver), the participants also voiced concern about the impact illegal drugs have on quality of life and safety in some neighbourhoods.

Questioned about marijuana, almost all of the participants spontaneously made a distinction between soft drugs (marijuana, hashish) and hard drugs (cocaine, heroin); some even thought the word “drug” was inappropriate in reference to marijuana. That distinction is based on two major elements: composition and effect. Hard drugs are more closely associated with chemical products that have destructive effects, particularly a greater tendency to develop an addiction. Marijuana and marijuana derivatives are associated with plants or natural products, and the risk of dependency is virtually nil, except among people who are especially predisposed or vulnerable. There were many comparisons with alcohol: alcohol can be used in reasonable quantities without a problem, and only a small proportion of users develop dependency problems. Nor was marijuana associated with crime: “I can’t picture a guy robbing the corner store to buy himself a joint. This is something heroin addicts would do. First, pot is cheap, second it doesn’t make you want it desperately.” The only exception more common in Quebec than elsewhere was the association with organized crime, that is, motorcycle gangs.

In contrast to “hard” drugs, which are considered part of a world of moral and physical distress and social decay, the participants generally associated marijuana with relaxation and pleasure, a drug used primarily in social settings, like alcohol.

In any event, recreational use of marijuana was generally well accepted: “it doesn’t bother me that people do marijuana. As long as they are aware of their decision and what they are doing, I respect it.” In fact, several participants in each group spontaneously mentioned their own past or current experiences with marijuana use: “I sometimes smoke pot and it doesn’t keep me from being a productive guy at work or a good family man.” And like alcohol, the difference lay more in the notions of abuse and responsibility, although the participants were harder on alcohol abuse, which they associate with violence. “I used to go out to bars a lot. Every night there would be a fight. A guy gets drunk and then starts insulting somebody else or feels another is flirting with his girlfriend. At one point punches get thrown around. But you know what? I have never seen a guy stoned on pot go nuts and want to knock somebody out.” While they did not associate marijuana use with violence or crime, the participants did express concern about people’s behaviour when under the influence of marijuana. Finally, the participants did not associate marijuana use with a particular social class: young people use marijuana, but so, too, do professionals, artists, lawyers, government employees and others.

The researchers did not observe any generational differences in recreational use of marijuana. If there were a difference, it would be rooted more in socio-occupational features: people with less education and people in rural areas appear to be more resistant. Further, people who oppose recreational use of marijuana do so more for moral and sometimes even religious reasons. Another difference is that women with school-age children said they were very concerned about how readily available marijuana is in schools. [translation] “I don’t care if they legalize it or not. All I want is for marijuana to be kept away from children. It makes me furious that they sell it in primary school, because that gets them hooked at a very young age.”

As the public opinion surveys discussed earlier showed, the participants generally supported the legalization of marijuana for medical use. However, some of the respondents said they would like to see a clear distribution structure put in place in health care establishments and that dosages should be geared to the intensity of the pain.

Generally, the participants felt that occasional use had no adverse health effect. Spontaneously making a comparison with alcohol and tobacco, they felt that marijuana was not the most dangerous of the three substances. Further, most of the respondents were not afraid of people getting hooked on marijuana, noting that dependency is a function of the person’s maturity and frequency of use. “This is the key question. I don’t think you can get hooked on it really. Not as much as booze or nicotine for sure. But that’s the kind of proof or medical evidence I would like to have if you want me to make up my mind on it.” The participants also did not think that marijuana is a gateway to other drugs or “hard drugs”, because the user’s personality and maturity have more influence than the marijuana itself.

The interview guide asked the participants to react to two research findings: the proportion of Canadians who have used marijuana in the past 12 months is approximately 10%, and about 30,000 charges are laid a year for simple possession of marijuana. In both cases, the participants were incredulous. Regarding the proportion of users, all the participants felt that there were far more: [translation] I’m surprised that only 10% of the population are users. I would have said 50% or 60%.” Regarding the number of charges, the participants unanimously felt that police should focus more on fighting crime rings: “30,000 people charged per year seems like a waste of taxpayers’ money, if it is just for possession. It’s a lot of money to prosecute and they all get thrown out anyway.” [translation] “When you think about other, more serious crimes, when you think how it clogs up the courts, I think it’s ridiculous.” Nevertheless, the participants felt that Canada is a relatively tolerant society when it comes to recreational use of marijuana, at least in comparison with other countries, and spontaneously named the United States and Saudi Arabia as repressive and Switzerland and the Netherlands as tolerant; Canada fell somewhere in between.

The interviews were conducted after the Committee released its discussion paper in which it set out a number of public policy options. The focus group participants were first urged to freely voice their opinions on the public policies they would prefer to see and were then presented with the Committee’s proposals and asked to react.

By and large, the response from the participants fell somewhere between decriminalization and legalization. That position was most prevalent in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver and Halifax; more participants in Vancouver and Montreal favoured legalization with government controls: “The best option is decriminalization leaning towards government legalization. The worst option would be depenalization: to legalize without getting involved.” According to the participants, those options would make it possible to increase the ability to provide information about risk, user health, public safety, respect for individual rights and freedoms, and the effectiveness of government spending, and would reduce illegal trafficking and the involvement of organized crime. They also said they would anticipate an increase in recreational use of marijuana but did not think that there would necessarily be an increase in use or abuse among young people. On the contrary, several participants felt that decriminalization would lead to a decrease in use among young people because the appeal of the forbidden fruit would be gone.

There is still a hard-core minority who think that current laws are not harsh enough and that society should move toward greater criminalization of recreational use of marijuana. That position was voiced most loudly in Winnipeg among persons over 40 and in Trois-Rivières.

Finally, the participants said they would like to be informed and “educated” about marijuana use and in particular would like to be made aware of scientific knowledge of the short- and long-term effects, the real risk of dependency and escalation, ways of protecting children against early use, and the impact of decriminalization on the war on organized crime.

The authors of the study identified the following key factors:

··               the protection of youth and children is central to any discussion of a public policy on marijuana;

··               decriminalization of use is the preferred option, as it would make it possible to recognize the social reality and at the same time focus on the “real” problems;

··               some participants expressed support for legalization but wondered about the nature and control of production and quality standards, methods of distribution and marketing, and the establishment of quotas in order to prevent abuse.


Because this was a qualitative survey, we cannot extrapolate the results to the entire Canadian population. Our financial resources did not allow us to conduct a comprehensive study using a representative sample of the population, which would have allowed us to validate these “hunches”. Still, we are able to state the following: 1. these results are similar in many ways to the data from the opinion polls; and 2. the commonalities between the focus groups in most of the cities and between age groups suggest there is some validity to these hunches.


[1][10] Dr. Benedikt Fischer, Professor, Department of Public Health Sciences, University of Toronto, testimony before the Special Senate Committee on Illegal Drugs, Senate of Canada, First Session of the thirty-seventh Parliament, September 17, 2001, Issue 6, page 13.

[2][11]  Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse (1999), Canadian Profile, 1999: Alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, Ottawa: author, pages 214-215.

[3][12]  National Post, “Two-thirds favour decriminalizing pot”, May 15, 2000.

[4][13]  Julian Beltrame, “Reefer Madness: The Sequel”, MacLean’s, August 6, 2001, Vol. 114, pages 22-25.

[5][14]  Hamel, D., et al. (2001), Perceptions de la population québécoise en lien avec les programmes de prévention de la toxicomanie et du VIH, [public perceptions in Quebec regarding substance abuse and HIV prevention programs], Quebec City: Institut national de santé publique du Québec.

[6][15]  Ibid., page 3.

[7][16]  Ibid., page 27.

[8][17]  Ibid., page 4

[9][18]  Ibid., page 38.

[10][19]  Adlaf, E.M., and A. Paglia (2001), Drug Use among Ontario Students 1977-2001. Findings from the OSDUS, Toronto: Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.


[11][20]  Léger Marketing (2002), An Exploratory Study Among Canadians About the Use of Cannabis, Montreal: author. Available on line at the Committee’s site.

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