Joe Oliver: the latest Harper Conservative to join Canada’s cannabis industry

Former cabinet minister says there's "zero inconsistency" in joining the medical cannabis industry after being part of a government that vigorously opposed the legalization of cannabis


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It's safe to say the Conservative government of Canada under former prime minister Stephen Harper was never interested in reforming Canada's cannabis laws.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/03/2018 (1643 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It’s safe to say the Conservative government of Canada under former prime minister Stephen Harper was never interested in reforming Canada’s cannabis laws.

Under Harper’s leadership, the Tories continued the war on drugs by maintaining the criminal prohibition on non-medical cannabis use and increasing the penalties for cannabis-related crimes.

ADRIAN WYLD / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES Federal Finance Minister Joe Oliver
Arrests for simple marijuana possession soared during Harper’s time in office. Ahead of the 2015 election, Harper and his party campaigned vigorously against the Liberal’s cannabis legalization promise, and Harper himself stated publicly that cannabis is “infinitely worse” than tobacco.

It’s no surprise, then, that Canadian eyebrows were raised when former members of Harper’s cabinet started entering the legal cannabis industry after leaving politics, taking advantage of business opportunities that sprouted up as the new Liberal government prepared to legalize the drug.

The most notable example is Julian Fantino, who served as Harper’s minister of veterans affairs after a career as Toronto’s tough-talking chief of police. Fantino faced intense media scrutiny last fall after becoming an executive with Ontario-based cannabis clinic operator Aleafia.

In a quarrelsome interview with CBC Radio’s As it Happens last November, host Carol Off grilled Fantino about whether he had ever used marijuana (he hadn’t), and how he went from serving in a government that opposed the legalization of cannabis to making money as an executive with a legal cannabis company.

“You have to separate out the whole issue of legalization from what I’m involved in right now,” Fantino told Off. “I’m involved in the medical aspect that helps people greatly through the dispensing of medically prescribed marijuana cannabis.”

Fantino has since been joined at Aleafia by his former Conservative colleague Gary Goodyear, who served in the Harper cabinet as minister of state for science and technology.

Joe Oliver joins Israeli-Canadian medical cannabis firm

Joe Oliver has become the latest former Harper cabinet minister to enter the cannabis business. 

In an op-ed published in the Sun newspapers on March 13, Oliver extolled the medical potential of cannabis and identified himself as “the Chairman of PlantExt, a private Israeli/Canadian company devoted to developing and commercializing cannabis extracts in the treatment of diseases.”

CP Prime Minister Stephen Harper (left) stands with Finance Minister Joe Oliver as he arrives to table the budget on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, April 21, 2015. (Justin Tang / The Canadian Press files)
In an recent interview with The Leaf News, Oliver said PlantExt is developing cannabis-based extracts “based on intellectual property that has been developed in Israel, which we will commercialize and raise money for in Canada, and expect to sell the products in Israel, Canada and elsewhere where it’s legally permitted.”

Little public information is available about PlantExt. The company’s LinkedIn profile describes it as “a young Israeli company focused on exploring the potential of discovering and developing active cannabis extracts with significant health benefits,” and says it has a research agreement with Israel’s Volcani Center, a government-sponsored agricultural research centre.

The company is privately held and has between two and 10 employees, according to the profile.

PlantExt is focusing on using cannabis extracts to treat inflammatory bowel diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s and colitis, said Oliver, adding the company expects to be involved in the treatment of other diseases in the future.

‘There’s zero inconsistency in my position’

Oliver echoed Fantino’s position that for-profit work in the medical cannabis field is ideologically consistent with the political positions of the previous Conservative government.

“The stand of the (Harper) government related to recreational use (of cannabis),” said Oliver.

Julian Fantino was a cabinet minister in the Harper government and the former chief of police of Toronto. He is now the executive chairman of medical cannabis company Aleafia. (The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld)
”It did not relate to medical use. And the company I’m associated with is totally uninvolved in recreational-use cannabis. Its product is exclusively non-psychoactive. You cannot get high on the product. So there’s zero inconsistency in my position.”

In his political roles as the federal government’s minister of natural resources and minister of finance, Oliver wasn’t involved in anything cannabis-related, he said. Before starting with PlantExt in the new year, he had no experience in the field of medical cannabis, he maintained.

“I’ve learned a lot in the last few months, I can tell you, but I’m not presenting myself as a scientist,” said Oliver.

“Views on marijuana have evolved. There is no question. And so that’s why this government is able to take the stand that it has. That’s the way things work in a democracy.”–Joe Oliver

Oliver said he personally does not oppose the legalization and regulation of cannabis for recreational purposes, but would prefer decriminalization. The former cabinet minister declined to say whether he has ever used cannabis himself.

Fantino is “entitled to change positions” on cannabis, Oliver said.

“I mean, let’s face it, society does change and majority opinions of a whole host of social issues change,” he said.

“So you don’t go around saying, ‘You said something 20 years ago, and now your view is different.’ Views on marijuana have evolved. There is no question. And so that’s why this government is able to take the stand that it has. That’s the way things work in a democracy.”

Oliver doesn’t believe cannabis has to be legalized for recreational use in order to pursue medical research.

Justing Tang / The Canadian Press Joe Oliver takes part in a TV interview after tabling the federal budget in the House of Common on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday.
”And the proof of that is, that in Israel it is not legal for recreational use and yet they’re a leader in research on medical cannabis,” he said. “That makes it absolutely clear what I guess logic would tell you, which is that there doesn’t have to be any tie-in.

“But the truth is, there’s been a stigma associated with it, which has also diminished the amount of research funding available.

“Where it’s illegal for both, there’s a prohibition and a serious problem,” said Oliver.

“Where it’s legal for medicine and illegal for recreational use, there shouldn’t be an impediment. Sometimes, a social stigma lingers in that kind of environment. In Israel, they’re able to make that distinction.”   @sol_israel

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