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Marijuana, ISIS and assisted dying: What Canadians think of big issues for 2016

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The Liberals find themselves onside with public opinion on two complicated issues, but not on ISIS

With a long list of election promises to fulfil, the federal Liberals have a lot of work ahead of them in 2016.

Here’s what Canadians think of three issues that could be particularly thorny ones for Justin Trudeau in the coming year.

Physician-assisted dying

With the Liberal government requesting a six-month extension from the Supreme Court on a February deadline to come up with new laws to deal with physician-assisted dying, the issue will come to a head at some point in the year.

Polling on this issue suggests a large majority of Canadians are in favour of making physician-assisted death legal. It also suggests that it has been a long time coming.

The most recent poll on physician-assisted dying comes from Insights West. In its poll conducted at the end of November, it found that 79 per cent of Canadians strongly or moderately support allowing “physician-assisted suicide”, as long as the patient is able to make such a request and if the person is suffering from a “grievous and irremediable medical condition. that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable.” Fully 49 per cent strongly supported this.

A poll conducted in August by Forum Research showed similar results, with 77 per cent saying they were in favour of making “physician-assisted suicide” legal in Canada for the terminally ill.

This is not a new opinion, however. A poll conducted by Gallup in 1974 found a majority of Canadians supporting physician-assisted death (termed as “mercy-killing” in the poll) in the case of an incurable disease causing great suffering. By the late 1970s, support for allowing physician-assisted death had reached two-thirds of Canadians, and it has hardly budged since then.

After more than four decades of strong support, why hasn’t physician-assisted dying been made legal in Canada?

Among other things, it is a complicated and personal issue for physicians. A survey conducted for the Canadian Medical Association earlier this year found that while 59 per cent of physicians surveyed agreed with the Supreme Court’s decision, 63 per cent said they would not “consider providing medical aid in dying if it was requested by a patient.”

With a little more probing, the survey found that a majority of physicians were willing to “help a competent, consenting dying patient” end their lives “if appropriate and rigorous checks and balances are in place.”

The government will have to determine what those checks and balances will be in 2016.

Marijuana

Another issue on the table for the Liberal government next year will be the legalization and regulation of marijuana. And like the issue of physician-assisted dying, the challenge lies in how it will be implemented, rather than whether Canadians support it or not.

They do — the most recent poll by Forum Research (conducted in early November) showed that 59 per cent of Canadians agreed with the legalization, regulation, and taxation of marijuana. Just 33 per cent of respondents disagreed.

These numbers have held steady for some time, with Forum finding only a slight increase in support for legalization compared to the polling done by the firm before the election campaign came to a successful end for the Liberals.

Support for legalization was very strong among Liberal and NDP voters. But Conservative voters, by a margin of more than two-to-one, were opposed.

That marijuana should be legalized has been a majority opinion for some time, with polling by Angus Reid showing most Canadians supporting it since at least 2007. Opposition to marijuana legalization, however, was a majority view as recently as 1997, according to polling done by Environics.

As to how marijuana should be sold once it is legalized, a large number of Canadians appear to be on side with Kathleen Wynne’s way of thinking. The premier of Ontario suggested that selling marijuana through the province’s Liquor Control Board (LCBO) “makes a lot of sense.”

A poll conducted by Forum Research in early December showed that 40 per cent of Canadians also thought it would be best sold through a government agency, while 15 per cent preferred it be left to individual growers. Another 17 per cent preferred a combination of the two.

A more recent poll of Ontarians, however, found respondents split on whether they wanted to see marijuana sold at the LCBO, whereas the idea of selling it through ‘specialized marijuana dispensaries’ was met with majority support.

Islamic State

With coalition allies ramping up their air strikes against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and Canada opting to end its bombing mission and replace it with more military trainers on the ground, the Middle East will be a big issue for the federal government in 2016.

Unlike the two issues above, the Liberals’ position on the bombing mission against ISIS is not entirely aligned with public opinion.

Two polls conducted in mid-November by Mainstreet Research and Forum Research demonstrated this. The Forum poll found only 33 per cent of Canadians agreed that the bombing mission should end, while 51 per cent disagreed (and four-in-five Conservatives). The poll by Mainstreet showed that 60 per cent of Canadians approved of the bombing mission, with just 30 per cent disapproving.

However, more Canadians approved of a training mission: 70 per cent, compared to to 21 per cent disapproving. But given the choice, more Canadians (38 per cent) opted for continuing the bombing mission over moving towards a training mission (28 per cent). Just eight per cent wanted to do nothing at all.

If the Liberals are going to be sending more troops on the ground to train the Kurds, Canadians prefer that they keep their role to a training mission. Given the choice between training and actually getting involved in combat, in a poll by Abacus Data 57 per cent of Canadians chose the former.

The success of whatever form the Canadian mission takes, as well as the broader conflict against ISIS, will have a big impact on how Canadians view the country’s role.

This is one of the issues that may see the greatest fluctuations in public support in 2016.

The poll by Insights West was conducted between November 21 and 25, 2015, interviewing 1,035 Canadians via the Internet. As the poll was conducted online, a margin of error does not apply.

The poll by Forum Research on physician-assisted dying was conducted between August 23 and 24, 2015, interviewing 1,400 Canadians via interactive voice response. The poll on marijuana legalization was conducted between November 4 and 7, 2015, interviewing 1,256 Canadians via interactive voice response. The national poll on where to sell marijuana was conducted between December 6 and 8, 2015, interviewing 1,369 Canadians via interactive voice response. The Ontario poll on where to sell marijuana was conducted on December 20, 2015, interviewing 1,003 Ontarians via interactive voice response. The poll on the bombing mission was conducted on November 17, 2015, interviewing 909 Canadians via interactive voice response. The margins of error associated with these surveys is +/- 3 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

The poll by Mainstreet Research was conducted on November 16, 2015, interviewing 2,718 Canadians via interactive voice response. The margin of error associated with the survey is +/- 2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

The poll by Abacus Data was conducted between November 23 and 25, 2015, interviewing 1,500 Canadians via the Internet. As the poll was conducted online, a margin of error does not apply.

The federal Liberals should find the public behind them on some of the thorniest issues facing them in 2016, including the legalization of marijuana and physician-assisted dying, but how they handle the ISIS mission could throw up some hurdles.

This Is Where ISIS Gets Its Weed

Most Lebanese hash is produced by Shia who are sworn enemies of the so-called Islamic State, but that doesn’t mean they won’t sell them a ton or two.

Jesse Rosenfeld
Reuters

THE BEKAA VALLEY, Lebanon — They are killing Syrians and each other at an astronomical rate but there seems to be one thing that jihadist troops and Assad allies are working together on: getting high on Lebanon’s supply.

Just across a snow-capped mountain range, in the Bekaa Valley, are weed fields tended mostly by poor, Assad-friendly Shia farmers. But business is business. They tell The Daily Beast they are selling their products to ISIS recruits, who are allegedly blazing Lebanese blond and reselling it to fund their atrocities.

“Last month we sold one ton of hash to ISIS,” says “Imad,” who farms a 15-acre cannabis plot in the shadow of the Qalamoun Mountains that separate the valley from Syria. (He declined to use his real name out of fear of arrest.) The 50-year-old father of six has fought in Syria with Hezbollah against the so-called Islamic State, often referred to as ISIS. And he was related to one of the Lebanese soldiers captured and beheaded by jihadists in the border town of Arsal, a key base of support in Lebanon for the Sunni sectarian fundamentalist movement that has used mass murder, torture, and rape to establish a self-proclaimed caliphate.

But none of that stopped Imad and some of his fellow farmers from brokering the drug deal with the holier than thou “caliphate” that he says also included “some coke and pills.”

Assad’s fighters, less surprisingly, also like to go to war with a buzz, and also want a piece of the action distributing one of Lebanon’s largest exports. “We sell a bit to people in the Syrian army, too,” said Imad, a little cautious on the subject. “It’s small scale, one to two kilos at a time.”

Imad, sporting a trim beard and green military fatigues, says he hates ISIS with a bitter passion and swears he will hunt down and kill those in Arsal who butchered his relative, but, again, business is business. The war, he says, has blocked the traditional trade routes through Syria to markets in Jordan and Turkey, so selling to militants is one of the ways to continue to turn a profit.

“Before the war in Syria we would cross the mountains with 200 kilos [of hash] each, get the cash and come back,” he told The Daily Beast. Nowadays the only exports to Syria happen when militants make orders.

Clouds hang low over the fertile valley where the earth is moist and warm with the coming of spring, and Imad bends down to inspect his recently planted crop. His calloused hand gently lifts a green pointed leaf to make sure it is healthy. He reads it like a printout, in ways farmers have passed down over centuries of cannabis cultivation in the region.

The Bekaa’s traditional dominance of the hash business is being challenged, however.

ISIS and the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front are also able to develop their own hash-cash economy. According to Ahmad Moussalli, a political science professor at the American University in Beirut who specializes in Islamist movements, the vast territorial gains by ISIS around Syria’s border with Lebanon have given the jihadists control over significant areas of cannabis cultivation. They are “profiting from the trade,” says Moussalli, referring to accusations by the Lebanese army.

But those profits are getting harder to come by, at least in Lebanon. The war has created competition for Bekaa’s hash industry while an increase in the valley’s own production has sent prices plummeting. The war has altered the underground trade by blocking major routes, and it has also pulled the Lebanese security forces’ attention away from the Bekaa’s weed farmers.

The result is an exceptionally bountiful bud harvest with few places to go, says a major hash exporter who refers to himself as “Abu Hussein.”

“We had a good harvest this season but have a distribution problem,” Abu Hussein told The Daily Beast.

We met at one of Abu Hussein’s houses in the Bekaa town of Brital, known as a center of Lebanon’s underworld. The mostly Shia town of 20,000 has gained a reputation as a hash and weapons trade hub as well as a place to find counterfeit passports.

It is also known for its fierce opposition to ISIS. Posters of Hezbollah martyrs and the party leader, Hassan Nasrallah, plaster the entrance to the hilly village on the edge of the towering mountains. “When Daesh [the Arabic acronym for ISIS] attacked this area in August, the people of the town rose up to push them back,” says Abu Hussein. The battle on the outskirts was fought by village residents and Hezbollah fighters, he said.

There is little attempt to hide the illicit trade here. As we sat in Abu Hussein’s living room, his friend dropped a 10-pound bag of reddish-brown hashish, still waiting to be compressed, on the coffee table. He then returned to puffing on a massive blunt that would make Snoop Dogg proud.

Abu Hussein’s hoodie bunches over his pot belly as he slumps into the couch, describing how this year’s yield should bring in $200 million for the valley. It will sell for much more on the street and the largest cut of the profits, he says, will go to about 100 major exporters.

While Shia farmers play a large role in the trade, Abu Hussein says Sunni villages in the area also grow cannabis, and the trade employs people across confessions and nationalities. Bekaa is a place where Sunni, Shia, and Christian communities live in close proximity, if not always as neighbors.

“Syrian workers here process [the hash] and Christian army officers smuggle it out,” says Abu Hussein. It’s a mass export industry that relies on bribing government and security officials.

The huge influx of over a million Syrian refugees into Lebanon, a country of 4 million, has created a pool of unemployed and exploitable workers that is now vast, but Abu Hussein says Syrians have been a cheap source of labor in hash production since the days when Lebanon was occupied by Syrian forces and Damascus tried to erase the borders.

Since the Syrian civil war started, Lebanese hash mostly ends up in Egypt, Syria, the Gulf and Saudi Arabia, But Abu Hussein notes that Israelis, too, get a small portion of Bekaa bud. It travels either via Jordan or in bags that are tossed over the closed border fence between Lebanon and northern Israel in exchange for bags of cash thrown back.

Only a sliver of these profits will make it back to the growers. Imad estimates he will get just over $4,000 per acre, a total of $60,000, from his last harvest. He says it will sell for 16 times that price on the street and suggests he would prefer to grow potatoes and vegetables. But that’s more or less a fantasy. He did try to grow potatoes, he says, and he lost almost $60,000.

“If the government supported us we wouldn’t be doing this,” he tells The Daily Beast. He says he is frustrated that government projects to support alternative agriculture have failed because of corruption.

As he sits with his family on the porch of his modest one-floor home, which accommodates his wife, six children, and his parents, it is clear why Imad’s situation, common in these parts, has the potential for political exploitation. On the one hand, he is on the ground floor of the drug trade, steeped in corruption that is heightened by Syria’s war. On the other, he is a farmer, the salt of the earth, in Lebanese terms, who is trying to eke out a living in an industry that has been a part of the valley for centuries.

It is a situation that led Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, head of Lebanon’s Progressive Socialist Party, to call for legalizing the cannabis trade. “It creates economic activity for poor people,” he tells The Daily Beast.

Moussalli points out that Jumblatt’s position hasn’t received much opposition and is part of increasing political competition for the support of Bekaa farmers. “Jumblatt is trying to soften his position with the Shia,” he says.

“Hash is one of the very important trades for Lebanon historically,” says Moussalli. “It will be important for years to come, either legally or illegally. ”

Most Lebanese hash is produced by Shia who are sworn enemies of the so-called Islamic State, but that doesn’t mean they won’t sell them a ton or two.