Marijuana became legal across Canada at midnight on Wednesday morning.
It was a historic moment, the culmination of decades of efforts to strip the criminality out of a drug that had long been subject to a significant stigma.
Coverage of marijuana legalization on Globalnews.ca:
But just because adults can now possess and consume marijuana in certain amounts without facing jail time doesn’t mean that most Canadians are ready to see other drugs legalized, too.
In fact, a clear majority in every region across Canada doesn’t think the federal government should seriously consider legalizing all drugs, according to a poll conducted by Ipsos on behalf of Global News.
Poll respondents were asked to indicate whether they agreed with the statement, “now that recreational marijuana is being legalized, the government needs to seriously consider legalizing all drugs.”
Just under a fifth of respondents (19 per cent) agreed with this across Canada, according to the poll.
The fewest agreed in Atlantic Canada (12 per cent), while the most agreed in Ontario (22 per cent).
B.C., a province that has been noted for innovative drug policy around supervised injection sites, sat right in the middle with just under a fifth in agreement (18 per cent), although that was within the margin of error, putting it about par with Ontario and Quebec.
The results didn’t seem to surprise Jennifer McLeod Macey, Ipsos’ vice-president, public affairs.
“Many people are inherently resistant to change and are just wrapping their heads around the changes to cannabis use in Canada,” she said.
“This is something that will take people a while to understand and get used to, especially considering the landscape is changing every day and more changes are expected for 2019.”
Calls to decriminalize or legalize drugs aren’t new.
One of the earliest calls in Canada came from Vince Cain, B.C.’s former chief coroner, in 1994.
That year, he issued a report in response to an overdose crisis centred on heroin.
In his report, Cain blasted the “war on drugs” approach as an “expensive failure” and recast the crisis as a “health problem with a tremendous social overlay.”
As part of the report, he recommended decriminalizing possession of “hard” and “soft” drugs and urged B.C.’s provincial government look into legalizing substances such as marijuana.
Others would follow — the city of Vancouver would call on the feds to examine alternatives to the “prohibition” approach when it came to illegal drugs in 2005.
Patricia Daly, chief medical health officer at Vancouver Coastal Health, would later join other health officials in saying:
“The best way to decrease the harms associated with any psychoactive substance — whether it’s illegal drugs like heroin, cocaine, marijuana or alcohol, tobacco, or even prescription drugs — is they should be all legal but very strictly regulated.”
Yet even with experts calling for the regulation of hard drugs, public opinion doesn’t appear to have moved significantly in that direction.
Part of that may have to do with how the questions are asked, said Dr. Evan Wood, director of the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use and former head of Stop the Violence BC, a coalition of police officers, academics and others concerned about the link between cannabis prohibition and organized crime.
“I think most British Columbians wouldn’t know that heroin, for instance, has been legalized as a prescription medication for people with severe opioid addiction,” he told Global News.
Wood said if people were asked whether they supported legalizing drugs — knowing that at least one was being used to treat addiction — “it may not be such a precipitous drop-off.”
For Wood, the “drop-off” shows the need for “public education on the limits of prohibition.”
People are likely resistant to legalizing drugs because they “don’t really know what legalization would mean.
“No reasonable person is going to say that highly addictive, dangerous drugs be available in 7-Eleven,” he said.
Wood said there hasn’t been a “sustained and active conversation” that has looked at greater understanding of the consequences of drug legalization.
“Those are discussions that I think lie ahead,” he said.
One voice people are likely to hear in that discussion — Pamela McColl, an activist with Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) Canada, an organization that advocates “smart policies that decrease marijuana use.”
McColl has taken a stand against the legalization of marijuana as it’s unfolded in Canada, with her concerns largely revolving around what she called the drug’s “normalization.”
She has argued that when it comes to tobacco, public health agencies have taken an approach that involves “denormalizing” the substance to the degree that laws could be passed to keep it from being smoked on airplanes, in offices and in parks.
“Legalization is normalization,” she said, when asked how she feels about legalizing all drugs.
And normalization could lead to greater drug use, she asserted.
Academic research has contradicted her on that count, however — and so has polling.
The Global News/Ipsos poll showed that, of those who don’t currently use cannabis, nearly 90 per cent said they’re not likely to ingest it after legalization.
Meanwhile, a 2017 study in the academic journal Addiction found that, while marijuana use had increased in the U.S. in the decade between 2005 and 2015, it did not find any close correlation with legalization.
Instead, the study found that rising cannabis use could have had more to do with stronger public approval for the drug.
Nevertheless, McColl is likely to continue her stand against drug legalization in concert with Potwatch, a new watchdog group that launched Wednesday at Vancouver’s Robson Square, the same day weed became legal.
“What they want to do is hold the government accountable,” she said.
“What are the consequences of all this?”
That’s a question both she, and those who support legalization, want to see answered.
METHODOLOGY: Ipsos interviewed 2,000 Canadians from its I-Say panel between Oct. 5 and 9, 2018. Quotas and weighting were employed to ensure that the sample’s composition reflects the overall population according to census information. The results are accurate to within +/- 2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20, of what the results would have been had all Canadian adults been polled.