Eight months before recreational marijuana is set to be legalized in Canada, two former high-ranking police officers have launched a new company that connects patients with medical pot.
Former OPP commissioner, MP and federal Conservative cabinet minister Julian Fantino and former RCMP deputy commissioner Raf Souccar officially launched their new business on Tuesday. They welcomed media to their first clinic, a storefront tucked into a strip mall in Vaughan.
Both men spent decades battling illegal drug use in their law enforcement careers, with Fantino going as far as equating legalizing marijuana to legalizing murder while serving as Toronto's chief of police in 2004.
The duo had a change of heart after being "persuaded by the science and by real life stories," Souccar said.
Aleafia Total Health Network, as the business is called, will connect patients to the "most effective product" for them and will work with universities and producers to research medical applications of the drug, according to the website.
The key word there is connect. Aleafia, which already has hundreds of patients, according to a media spokesperson, will not actually have any marijuana on the company's premises.
"The purpose of the clinic is to do the assessments," and provide complementary treatments like physiotherapy, said Fantino on Tuesday. "We're not in the marijuana business. We're a health delivery system."
After being assessed, patients can go to "whatever licensed provider they choose" to buy weed, he said.
Bad 'optics' for Souccar
Fantino, who took a notoriously hard line against marijuana legalization in his past roles, and Souccar, who served as member of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's marijuana legalization task force, have faced some criticism for their new venture.
British Columbia MP Don Davies, who serves as the federal NDP health critic, told CBC Toronto that Souccar's new business created the appearance of a conflict of interest.
"The optics of task force members, within a short period of time of their task force duties, going into that very business for personal profit… I think it's problematic," said Davies, arguing that there should be a required "cooling off" period after advising on policy in the future.
On Tuesday, Souccar said it was his time on the task force — and specifically hearing from patients who use marijuana as a treatment — that brought him around to medical marijuana.
"It was an opportunity I never had before, I was too busy enforcing the law. It brought about a huge change in me," he said.
Meeting patients was turning point
Souccar said his previous impression of medical marijuana users were that they wanted to use cannabis and used medical reasons as a "guise," but after meeting them, found that he "could not have been more wrong."
Fantino's about-face on marijuana came, he said, during his time as Minister for Veterans Affairs, when he met veterans suffering from issues like post-traumatic stress disorder.
"Days gone by, we all had a certain attitude," he said on Tuesday, explaining that veterans "came and lobbied me to enable them to access medical marijuana as a substitute to opioids" and that he was swayed after going on a "fact-finding mission" of his own.
Fantino said Aleafia doctors will not prescribe opioids. The company aims to be "part of the solution" to a rising tide of opioid dependency, Souccar added.
"We launched with the aim to counter Canada's growing number of opioid users," he said.
Both men also say they now support legalized recreational marijuana use with conditions, and that they would both use marijuana if prescribed it by a doctor.