Fewer than one in 10 Canadians are buying the federal government's argument that legalizing marijuana will lead to lower consumption levels among young Canadians, a new poll has found.
In addition, a majority of Canadians doubt the new system to legally distribute marijuana to adults across Canada will be fully operational by July 1, 2018, which is the Liberal government's deadline to end the 94-year-old prohibition on the drug.
The results of The Globe and Mail/Nanos survey highlight the challenges facing the Liberal government in convincing the public on the soundness of its policy, which is a centrepiece of its mandate.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has frequently said the first goal of legalization was to "protect our kids," while Liberal parliamentary secretary Bill Blair argued cannabis will be "far more difficult" to obtain by minors under the heavily regulated regime.
However, only 7 per cent of respondents said they believed that legalizing marijuana will lead to a decrease in consumption among Canadians younger than 18. On the other hand, 48 per cent of respondents said they felt that legalization would actually lead to an increase in youth consumption. (The remaining 45 per cent said it would have no impact or had no opinion.)
The Conservative Party of Canada is leading the opposition to legalization, using it as a central argument against the Liberals in a looming by-election in the riding of Lac-Saint-Jean. According to the Conservatives, there are large segments of the population who are worried about the consequences of legal marijuana in their communities.
"Despite the advice from doctors and experts, and despite the fact that provincial governments are telling Justin Trudeau to slow down, the Liberals are plowing ahead with their plans to adopt this flawed legislation," Conservative MP Alain Rayes said.
According to the poll, 57 per cent of Canadians are not confident that Ottawa and the provinces will have a legal framework for the sale of recreational marijuana in place by July 1. By contrast, 37 per cent of Canadians are confident that everything will be operational by then.
While Ontario has unveiled a plan to distribute marijuana through 150 government-run stores by 2020, the Quebec government is still running public consultations to determine the best way to handle the shift in public policy.
In an interview, Mr. Blair pointed to $274-million in new funding over five years to fight drug-impaired driving and black-market marijuana operations as proof that governments are getting ready for legalization. He added that putting an end to prohibition is "a process, not an event," which will leave more work to do after July 1.
"There is a certain urgency. The current system is unacceptable and failing, so we have to continue moving forward. We also recognize the complex amount of work required by all of the stakeholders in all of this," he said.
Mr. Blair insisted the federal government can meet its goal of preventing marijuana use by young Canadians by regulating supply, including imposing new penalties on those who sell to children. He added governments will also bring down demand through prevention and public education.
"This drug is dangerous for our kids. It is not our intention in any way to promote it, but rather to restrict access," Mr. Blair said.
Still, the Canadian Medical Association has raised a number of questions about Ottawa's plans, calling for a minimum age of consumption of 21 – instead of 18 in the federal legislation – to reflect the dangers of marijuana on developing brains.
CMA president Laurent Marcoux agreed that if done right, legalization should lead to decreased consumption among young Canadians. However, he said the government has failed to act quickly to put out a prevention campaign aimed at young Canadians.
"The government's goal is feasible, but it won't happen by itself. We should have already started putting together a strategy," Dr. Marcoux said in an interview.
The poll of 1,000 Canadians is deemed accurate within 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. It was conducted between Aug. 30 and Sept. 1.
Starting Monday, the health committee of the House will hold hearings on Bill C-45 to legalize marijuana, with nearly 100 witnesses invited to appear in front of MPs.