DECRIMINALISATION of the soft drug cannabis has been given a resounding rejection by Hong Kong people, according to an exclusive Sunday Morning Post poll. Days after two senior Hong Kong judges provoked heated debate by supporting decriminalisation, more than 96 per cent of 1,063 people questioned dismissed the idea. In fact, 75 per cent backed tougher penalties - not only for dealers, but also for ordinary users caught in possession. The poll, carried out by Hong Kong Polling and Business Research (PBR) last Wednesday and Thursday, revealed their biggest fear was that use of cannabis would lead people to try more dangerous narcotics, such as heroin. And nearly three-quarters of respondents also attacked as irresponsible claims by Mr Justice Kaplan and Mr Justice Godfrey, reported exclusively in last week's Sunday Morning Post, that laws barring possession of cannabis were outdated and did little to stem its use. A mere 1.3 per cent of those questioned felt lighter penalties were in order for cannabis consumers and suppliers, and only 2.4 per cent overall supported the justices' call to decriminalise the drug. Another surprise was that professionals and management personnel were the biggest opponents of decriminalisation. ''We didn't expect such an overwhelming objection to decriminalisation,'' said PBR managing director Hung Ching-tin. ''The most amazing result is the stronger opposition from what we would call the 'social cream', those with the highest education, income and position.'' More than 97 per cent of respondents from the professional classes were against decriminalisation, but they were only just ahead of students (96.26 per cent), blue collar workers (94.16 per cent) and retired residents (95.88 per cent). This contradicts the trend in Western nations, where polls have shown professionals and the educated classes to be among the forefront of those advocating greater leniency towards drug use. ''It shows that Hong Kong is still a very conservative society,'' said Mr Hung. This comment was highlighted by the overwhelming rejection of the controversial stance taken by Mr Justice Kaplan, a high court judge, and Mr Justice Godfrey, an appeal court judge. Asked if the judges' backing for decriminalisation of possession and trafficking of cannabis was irresponsible, 84.5 per cent said yes, with just 10.6 per cent saying no. When asked whether Hong Kong's drug problem had worsened over the past five years, 67.3 per cent said yes, while just 7.2 per cent thought things were getting better. Their comments came as police seized 40 kilograms of cannabis in what is believed to be the largest haul of the drug to be smuggled into Kai Tak airport. However, those perhaps closest to the drug scene - the youngest respondents - gave the gloomiest assessment. Nearly 69 per cent of those aged 18 and 19 said the situation was worsening, while 71.65 per cent of those aged 20 to 29 agreed. Older respondents were more optimistic, with 67.63 per cent of those aged 30 to 39 saying the problem was getting worse, compared with 62.8 per cent of those aged 40 to 49, 65.71 per cent of those aged 50 to 59, and 62.73 per cent of those 60 or older. Yet age clearly mattered on the question of whether tougher penalties should be given to those possessing or trafficking in cannabis. The most stern opinions came from those aged 60 or older, with 86.36 per cent favouring tougher penalties, compared with 82.86 per cent of those aged 50 to 59, 77.60 per cent of those aged 40 to 49, 78.32 per cent of those aged 30 to 39, 65.52 per cent of those aged 20 to 29, and 69.89 per cent of those aged 18 and 19. Only 14 of those surveyed advocated lighter penalties. Respondents also took issue with the comparison of cannabis with tobacco and alcohol. Mr Justice Godfrey told the Sunday Morning Post: ''Since human beings are allowed to smoke themselves to death with cigarettes, they ought to be allowed to smoke marijuana in the privacy of their own homes.'' Mr Justice Kaplan said: ''I am not satisfied that cannabis leads people to take more dangerous drugs, and recent research indicates that it is no more harmful than tobacco. It is certainly less addictive.'' But 64 per cent of respondents saw things differently. Only 26.6 per cent said that they considered cannabis to be similar in danger to tobacco and alcohol, while 9.4 per cent had no opinion.