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A medical marijuana user rolls a joint in Vancouver in this photo from 2012.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The politics of marijuana have shifted so much in the last 25 years that Canada appears finally to be on the verge of major change.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has proposed legalizing marijuana so that it could be regulated and taxed. The NDP have called for its decriminalization. The Conservatives, despite their gleeful criticism of Mr. Trudeau, took a cautious step in the same direction last week by saying they're looking at a policy that would allow police to issue tickets for possession, rather than lay a criminal charge.

It's a surprising move, but it mirrors the attitudes of the Canadian public. The political winds have been blowing in one direction on this issue for some time. Politicians are now catching up.

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"You would think it's only young potheads that are in favour of decriminalizing marijuana, but really every demographic we've studied in every part of this country supports it," said Sean Simpson of pollster Ipsos-Reid.

The march of public opinion on this issue has been steady. In 1987, when Ipsos-Reid surveyed Canadians, support for decriminalization was just 39 per cent. A decade later it crossed the 50 per cent threshold, and by 2012 two-thirds, or 66 per cent, of Canadians favoured decriminalization.

Many assume that there is a divide between old and young Canadians on pot. Since older Canadians are the group most likely to vote for Stephen Harper's Conservatives their reticence on decriminalization seems logical. But the generational differences are not vast. Those in the 55-plus bracket are very close to the rest of Canada on pot: 62 per cent favour decriminalization, compared to 68 per cent among 18-34s and 69 per cent among 35-54s, according to Ipsos-Reid data.

Of course, today's 55 year olds were 18 years old in 1977, a time when marijuana had been a focal point of youth culture for nearly a decade.

Attitudes to marijuana also tend to soften among the wealthy. Support for decriminalization is highest (77 per cent on 2012 survey) in households with annual incomes over $100,000. Is it because their children might have a lot to lose if they were ever hit with a criminal charge? Possibly. But wealth tends to be closely correlated to a high level of education, and those with a university degree are significantly more likely than those with less than a high school diploma to back liberalizing marijuana laws. The lower middle class, those with household incomes between $40,000 and $60,000, show the lowest levels of support (61 per cent on 2012 survey).

Looking ahead 10 years, it's likely that all those demographic factors will further stack public opinion in favour of loosening Canada's drug laws, particularly since education levels are higher at younger age levels.

For the Tories their change of tack represents "a recognition that the tide of public opinion is against them on this," said Mr. Simpson.

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"What this also does is draw back some of the support that might be going to Trudeau on the issue by presenting a more moderate alternative than the traditional Tory stance."

While all this activity around marijuana is newsworthy, it's not clear whether it will have much political impact. When Ipsos-Reid conducted a survey last month they tested roughly 15 Liberal policies, including marijuana legalization. They found that 20 per cent of the public support it strongly, and 28 per cent strongly oppose it. Despite the wave of sentiment favouring a liberalization of marijuana laws, the policy was deemed a net negative, according to Mr. Simpson, the only one that fell into that category, making it a political risk.

Marijuana use is not uncommon, of course. Five per cent of Canadians report smoking pot in the past month, and 9 per cent in the last year, according to the 2011 Canadian Alcohol and Drug Use Monitoring Survey. Nearly 40 per cent of Canadians over 15 years said they had used cannabis in their lifetime, and that rate was about 10 points higher among urban males.

At a conference held by the conservative Manning Centre last week, pollster Andre Turcotte reportedly warned the party's faithful that they were losing support among 45 to 64-year-old university educated men. But Mr. Turcotte did not mention marijuana policy as being among that group's priorities. He cited issues such as health care, accountability and lower taxes.

"There are a great many policies that are more important to Canadians than marijuana," Mr. Simpson said. "The economy, health care, jobs and all sorts of other things that are more important to Canadians."

Joe Friesen reports on demographics.

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