As an agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration for nearly 30 years, Matt Murphy was involved with crackdowns on all types of drug trafficking. But his major focus after he became chief of pharmaceutical investigations was going after rogue online pharmacies fueled by doctors signing fake prescriptions.
Two takedowns dubbed Operation Lightning Strike and Operation Baywatch are among his proudest achievements for dismantling at least 10 illegal online pharmacies and arresting two physicians.
“That wasn’t legitimate medicine,” Murphy told VICE News in an interview from Boston, where he retired from the DEA in 2011. In retirement, he’s turned his sights toward the world of legalized cannabis, a substance he always saw as just another illegal drug to be stomped out, but one he says he now considers healing and therapeutic.
“My whole mindset and culture had been that marijuana is illegal, but I never questioned why,” he said. “I’ve now seen the opioid epidemic spiral out of control. It definitely minimizes any risks that I can think of when it comes to marijuana as medicine.”
Murphy is now a compliance advisor for Khiron Life Sciences Corp., a Toronto-based medical marijuana company operating in Colombia with one of the first cultivation licenses granted by Colombia’s government after it legalized prescription weed in 2015. He’s said he’s drawn to Canadian businesses because it’s been successful so far with regulating cannabis. “It seems like it’s running smoothly” and there’s no sign that the U.S. federal government will follow its northern neighbour anytime soon when it comes to such drug policies, he said.
Many former DEA colleagues who spent their careers busting high-level cannabis traffickers didn’t necessarily approve of his move to Big Weed, but with many American states and countries around the world legalizing the drug for any use, Murphy says the expertise of former law enforcement officials like himself aligns with the ambitions of the highly lucrative industry that’s still in its infancy. It’s a perfect match. And countless former cops around the world are also cashing in on helping navigate these businesses through complicated regulations and security requirements, while giving their reputations a boost.
“It takes it from the perception of a bunch of cowboys growing weed in a field to a legitimate business that attracts legitimate investors,” said Murphy.
In Canada, home to the world’s biggest medical cannabis companies and what’s expected to become the biggest recreational market when it becomes legal this summer, cops and politicians becoming leaders in the cannabis industry has sparked fierce debate in recent months and accusations of profiteering and conflicts of interest. The rollout of the federal legislation is being spearheaded by former Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair, who’s now a Liberal MP and parliamentary secretary to the justice minister.
The list keeps growing and includes a number of former city and federal police chiefs, undercover drug cops, and Conservative politicians who were staunch opponents of the drug for any purpose.
And for some industry experts, these strange bedfellows raises questions about who gets favoured in legitimate cannabis spaces, and who will continue to be relegated to, and thrive in, the black market once the recreational system comes into effect.
Perhaps one of the most glaring examples is the new medical cannabis clinic Aleafia in Vaughan, Ontario launched by former Toronto Police chief Julian Fantino and ex-RCMP deputy commissioner and former undercover drug cop Raf Souccar. Fantino is its executive chair while Souccar is the president and CEO.
During his tenure as police chief of Canada’s biggest city in the early 2000s, Fantino was notoriously anti-weed, going so far as to compare legalizing the drug to legalizing murder.
In 2015, Fantino, then Conservative MP for Vaughan, told the Toronto Sun: “I see legalizing it or putting it in shops as trying to normalize narcotics, when the truth is there is nothing normal about it. It’s a mind-altering drug that causes impairments and like cigarettes is not healthy.”
But Fantino seems to have done a complete 180 since then, recently telling the CBC’s Carol Off that while he has never tried marijuana in his life, he’s now convinced of its medicinal benefits for patients suffering all sorts of ailments. “You can frame it anyway you want, but you will never be able to take away my integrity with respect to what I’m doing now and what I’ve done in the past,” Fantino urged.
His company did not respond to requests from VICE News for an interview.
While a change of heart by anyone who goes from anti-weed to embracing the drug is welcomed by cannabis advocates and researchers who work to fight the stigma around it, the thought of cops working with weed businesses doesn’t sit well with experts who have been urging the Canadian government to create programs to encourage black market cannabis businesses to transition to legal ones. So far, there are no such initiatives at the federal level, though some provinces are opening retail applications to small businesses. It’s unclear if business owners and employees will be required to clear criminal background checks like they do when applying to work for companies with licenses to produce cannabis by Health Canada.
“It seems like a gross injustice that people who were directly responsible for policing cannabis laws are now benefiting from its legalization without any opportunities for people who have been charged through prohibition to get involved in the industry,” Jenna Valleriani, a strategic advisor for Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy, said in an interview. Valleriani recently defended her PhD thesis at the University of Toronto on illegal and legal cannabis markets in Canada and said that the key to a successful legal recreational regime is one that is as diverse and inclusive as possible, otherwise the black and grey market will continue to thrive.
Around one million Canadians are estimated to hold criminal records related to marijuana, and the process to have those records expunged is costly and prohibitive.
“I think the federal government has a responsibility to look at who is getting involved in the cannabis industry and say how do we help the people that we have targeted and we have put in jail,” said Valleriani. “How can we help to even that playing field?”
She pointed to California as an example of a jurisdiction that made it a priority to incorporate those with previous cannabis-related convictions into the recreational market that officially opened at the start of 2018. It’s currently the biggest legal recreational market in the world and is expected to generate billions in revenue annually, and at least one billion a year in tax revenue.
In an attempt to repair the negative effects of prohibition, the City of Oakland launched a “cannabis equity program” that granted some of the first cannabis business permits to people convicted of simple possession offences and to those who lived in areas that had been over-policed.
Valleriani says that Canada would have done well to pursue such programs from the outset of the legalization process, because it will be difficult to do so after legalization comes into effect. She predicts that the recreational space will be dominated by big licensed producers who will buy out smaller companies, which could make the cost of entry even higher and more exclusive.
“What’s missing from the Canadian legalization story is that it’s not based on principles of social justice,” she explained. “It’s harder to retroactively go back and say now we’re going to implement a mechanism for low-income communities to be able to participate as licensed producers or retail shops. I’m not very optimistic, I think the system is just going to continue to privilege the same groups it’s always had.”
Canada’s public safety minister Ralph Goodale told reporters last week he was exploring granting amnesty to those with cannabis possession criminal records, but provided no specific details or a timeline for doing so.
“We’re weighing all of the legal implications to make sure that we fully understand the dimensions of this and, when we’re in a position to make an announcement, we will do so,” he said.
For Tom Lloyd, a former chief constable of the Cambridgeshire police in the U.K. who has become an outspoken advocate for drug law reform and cannabis legalization around the world, it’s important for cannabis consumers and supporters to pay close attention to police officers and government officials who invest or work for cannabis companies.
As a former undercover drug cop who was on the frontlines of the drug war in London, Lloyd said he knew even while he was on the force that the cycle of busting dealers and traffickers was expensive and futile. “You’d make arrests, but it makes no difference,” Lloyd told VICE News. “We’d do raids and arrest 30 or 40 dealers. The fact is you arrest a street dealer and you create a job opportunity, that happens at all levels.”
After he left the force, he became a champion for cannabis reform, and often encountered people who had been convicted for cannabis-related crimes. “Some are very bitter, and say ‘how can you do this’. Others understand that I was doing my job, which I had to do, and they are grateful for the fact that i’m now advocating for something that I believe in,” he said.
But as for getting paid by cannabis companies, Lloyd says it’s something he just couldn’t stomach.
“If you’re a police officer and you genuinely realized that prohibition is wrong, and what you were doing caused more harm than good and you regret it, then you should also be advocating to make it a lot safer, and advocating against drug prohibition altogether,” said Lloyd. But if the police officers are joining companies to market, sell, produce cannabis, then I hope their actions are such that they seem to be honourable in terms of harm reduction and they aren’t just sucked in by the lure of the easy buck in a rapidly growing market”