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As marijuana legalization looms, Canadians want more information

Tony Coulson is group vice-president, corporate and public affairs, at Environics Research.

The federal government has announced its intention to legalize cannabis for Canadian adults, with a target date of July, 2018. It would be reasonable to think this change would be well received: over the past few years, surveys have found that about two-thirds of Canadian support legalization.

But as legalization gets closer to becoming a reality, it's being transformed from an abstraction into a raft of concrete choices about licensing, oversight, distribution, packaging and labelling. In good Canadian fashion, there is also a dose of jurisdictional confusion about how Canadians will access their legal cannabis – the federal legislation leaves the distribution and sale of legal cannabis to the provinces and territories.

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As the legalization becomes more concrete, Canadians' support for it seems to be fluctuating, and may even have dropped overall. In an Environics survey fielded in April, we found that while over half of Canadians support legalization, few have strong opinions either for against. Moreover, three in four Canadians feel less than very well informed about the health and other risks of cannabis use, or about the types and potency of products that will become available.

The fact that support has flagged slightly suggests that for some, this topic just became real for the first time. Discussion about how to manage the risks of cannabis use – how to deal with driving under the influence, for example – may have brought the risks to life for some Canadians, dampening overall support for legalization.

When asked whether cannabis should be regulated more like tobacco or more like alcohol, Canadians are divided. Just over half say they would prefer cannabis regulations more like those for alcohol, and just under half say tobacco.

When we asked participants why they chose the option they did, those on the tobacco side most often mentioned the fact that both products are smoked, followed by the notion that tobacco use is strictly controlled. Fewer mentioned that advertising for tobacco is banned. Those preferring a regulatory system modelled after alcohol most often mention that cannabis has effects similar to alcohol ("impairment"), the need for roadside tests for driving under the influence, and also the belief that alcohol has more restrictions or is better regulated than tobacco.

On product packaging, we asked whether "companies should be free to brand, package and market their cannabis products to adults as they see fit, as is the case for many other products," or if "plain and standardized packaging rules should be enforced so that the products are not made more appealing by the branding and packaging." In this case, three-quarters of Canadians opted for the plain and standardized packaging, likely based on their awareness that this is how tobacco is regulated in Canada.

How and where should Canadians be allowed to acquire their cannabis? About two in three Canadians consider the following to be acceptable options: pharmacies (with controls similar to other regulated drugs), existing government-owned or -licensed liquor stores, and new government-owned cannabis retail stores. About 40 per cent consider private retail stores such as dispensaries acceptable while three in 10 consider distribution by mail – the current system for medicinal product – acceptable, and only about one in four are accepting of 24/7 home delivery for legalized cannabis.

The public's responses to all these questions must be read in the context of Canadians' self-admitted lack of knowledge about cannabis and its risks. The regulatory structures that govern the cannabis market will have important implications for product safety, access, and consumer education. There is a lot of work yet to be done in establishing and publicizing these parameters. In the meantime, Canadians' opinions on the issues remain soft and fluid, as they take in new information and consider new angles.

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Legalization legislation is the end of one process but the beginning of another, arguably thornier one. To choose just one of the dilemmas policy makers will have to resolve: How should leaders reconcile Canadians' support for a plain-packaging regime on one hand with their self-reported lack of awareness about cannabis products and their potencies? Canadians want access tightly controlled, but they also need relevant product and safety information. Consideration must also be given to who the rules are being written for – regular cannabis users, for example, have quite different views about most of these issues, when compared to non-users.

In recent years, many Canadians have thought of cannabis legalization as a common-sense modernization of a needlessly restrictive policy. But with legalization now at hand, Canadians recognize they don't have a deep understanding of the nuances of the issue – so many will likely rely on experts for careful, evidence-based decision-making to protect the health of users and others.

Video: Public health experts on advantages of marijuana legalization (The Canadian Press)
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