OTTAWA — Canadians are "increasingly likely" to support the legalization or decriminalization of drugs, including marijuana, the public safety minister's top bureaucrat has quietly advised.
It's a message that runs counter to the Conservative government's firm opposition to softer penalties for recreational pot smokers — an issue that has flared up regularly on the federal campaign trail.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau proposes legalizing marijuana — selling and taxing it much like alcohol — while the NDP's Tom Mulcair has come out in favour of decriminalizing pot. Trudeau has argued legalization would help shield young people from marijuana by closely regulating a trade now run by criminals.
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper has harshly criticized Trudeau's legalization plan, saying no one believes selling marijuana in stores will better protect children.
In a June briefing note to Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, deputy minister Francois Guimont said self-reported surveys indicate that Canadians, both adults and young people, have some of the highest rates of cannabis use in the world.
"There is evidence that Canadians are increasingly likely to support the legalization or decriminalization of some illegal substances, particularly cannabis," said Guimont's note, released under the Access to Information Act.
In addition, "young people tend to view the drug as less harmful than other illegal substances."
In recent years, cannabis has been legalized in a number of countries and some states, including Colorado, Washington state and Alaska, the note pointed out. However, the legislation's impact on justice system costs, emergency room visits and impaired driving "is still being analyzed."
Guimont sent the note to provide context for newly released Statistics Canada figures on drug-related offences in Canada in 2013 and the "considerable police, court and criminal justice resources" they involved.
The note says that since 1991, the crime rate has dropped by 50 per cent while the rate for drug offences has increased by about the same amount — now accounting for about one in every 20 police incidents.
Canadian police reported about 73,000 cannabis offences in 2013 — 80 per cent of them for possession.
However, the note points out, cannabis possession cases tend to be suspended or withdrawn, with less than half of those in adult court resulting in a conviction.
The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police has proposed changing the law to give officers discretion to simply issue a ticket for possession of a small amount of cannabis — but the government hasn't acted on that suggestion.
At the same time, police have concentrated resources on tackling marijuana grow operations, which often involve organized crime and generate funds for other illicit ventures.
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