Julian Fantino has been heavily criticized for launching a marijuana company after a career of crackdowns. Now, he talks to Herb about what prompted his change of heart.
Outgoing OPP Commissioner Julian Fantino during the Ontario police forces change of command ceremony in Toronto. (Photo by Andrew Francis Wallace/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
At age 75, retired cop Julian Fantino is still an imposing figure: towering over the room, alert and on guard as though he is still on duty. Once the commissioner of police for the largest province in Canada and chief of police for its largest city, he is Canada’s cop. At the height of his career, Fantino was one of the country’s most devout drug warriors. Today, however, he runs a medical marijuana company.
Police officers, both retired and currently serving, have played a central yet controversial role in Canada’s legalization process. Leading the charge for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s pot plan is former Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair, a man made famous for his response to the G20 summit protests of 2010, when his department violently rounded up more than 1000 Canadians who were demonstrating against poverty and capitalism, among other issues. Now, with recreational cannabis sales set to begin in Canada in October, some high-profile cops have become unlikely pot advocates.
Raf Souccar is another one of those cops-turned-cannabusinessmen. He is, quite literally, the picture of a Canadian police officer. His silhouette marks the sides of Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) cruisers across the country as part of the federal force’s logo. Having served 34 years as an officer, the majority of that time in drugs and organized crime, he retired in 2011 as deputy commissioner of the RCMP after publicly denouncing the force’s civilian chief for abusing his fellow officers.
In the Summer of 2016, Souccar was part of Prime Minister Trudeau’s Task Force on Cannabis Legalization and Regulation, a nine-member group of experts charged with carving out the path to Canada’s new cannabis regime. Two months later, Souccar received a phone call to join Fantino as part of what the Toronto Star called, “the new, respectable mob.”
Together, they launched medical marijuana and health services provider Aleafia and the local media erupted with outrage. Angry Torontonians recalled that Fantino once likened legalizing marijuana to legalizing murder. In 2015, he was still tweeting his opposition to Trudeau’s legalization promise, telling the Toronto Sun that his hometown and the headquarters of his new company, Vaughn, would never tolerate a cannabis business in their neighborhood.
“I can’t unwind or rewind the clock,” Fantino now tells Herb. “I don’t deny my past, but I embrace the future.”
Julian Fantino began as a recruit for the Toronto police in 1969. He moved through the ranks to eventually take the job of police chief in London, Ontario before leading Toronto’s police through one of the biggest corruption scandals in its history.
When Fantino became Toronto’s police chief in the early 2000s, as many as 30 Toronto officers were accused of stealing money from drug traffickers years prior. Six officers were eventually brought to court and five were convicted. In his role as chief, Fantino made the unprecedented decision of launching an internal investigation—a move which would shield the force and its reputation from prying reporters and an outraged public.
Unfortunately for Fantino, outrage—from the press and the public—has followed him. Throughout it all, Fantino has remained a cop’s cop, a favorite of the police union, and there can be no doubt he is respected among the Canadian law enforcement community.
“I’m not one for countering the wishes of the lawmakers,” he says. That is the good-soldier mentality that guided his hand as a drug enforcer—following the letter of the law.
As a cop and a politician, Fantino has taken far more flak than Souccar for arresting Canadians for a product his company now sells, but Souccar, a career cop, takes a similar stance when explaining his past. Police, according to Souccar, are “sworn to enforce the law without fear or favor.” No matter the view in hindsight, he says, that’s the job. Marijuana, when it was prohibited, was no exception.
Unfortunately, for both men, this lifelong devotion to the letter of the law has made their entry into the cannabis industry difficult to accept. Where they once busted grow ops, Aleafia now boasts 22 clinics and a 160,000-square-foot cultivation facility in the Niagara region.
Fantino credits his time as Minister of Veterans Affairs, under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, for changing his mind about cannabis. In less than two years at the VA, the headlines focused on his clashes with veterans over inadequate services and one meeting, in particular, that went viral after he walked out on veterans. That’s what most Canadians likely remember about Fantino’s time at the VA, but the former cop says, it’s hearing from veterans who use medical cannabis that brought him around on the issue.
Additionally, says Fantino, he thinks cannabis could serve as an important tool for ending the opioid crisis. According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, around 4,000 Canadians died from opioid overdoses in 2017.
“I know a lot of people in the military,” Fantino says, “obviously I know a lot of people in the first-responder community, I know a lot of them are suffering from the various issues that lead a lot of them to have been prescribed opiates.”
As for Souccar, when he was first asked to join the prime minister’s Task Force, he admits that he was apprehensive—a skeptic who, like Fantino, had never given much thought to the medical side of cannabis as a cop.
“My thoughts were that medical cannabis users are individuals who have found a legal way to do something that’s otherwise illegal for the purpose of getting high,” he tells Herb. It was his interactions with patients that changed his mind.
Over the summer of 2016, Souccar met with people like Mandy McKnight and her 9-year-old boy Liam, who suffers from Dravet syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy. Liam was experiencing over a hundred seizures a day, preventing him from attending school and leading a normal life. After receiving approval to treat his condition with CBD, Souccar says, he now goes up to two weeks without a single seizure.
It was after that meeting that Souccar had a revelation. “What is it?” he asked another member of the task force. “A miracle drug?”
The other task force member responded by revealing that he too was a patient and rolled up his pant leg to show Souccar his fused joins. The man had undergone two surgeries within a year to treat his severe arthritis. The doctors prescribed opioids; he chose cannabis instead.
“I came out of that meeting with the patients a different person,” Souccar says.
As he considered the country’s plan to legalize, it seemed as though the number of people going public with stories about how cannabis transformed their lives was only growing. Even a former cop, an old friend of Souccar’s, asked to meet him for lunch to tell him he had been treating his Crohn’s disease with CBD.
“I just hope you don’t get mad at me,” Souccar recalls his friend saying, grabbing his arm and confessing, “Raf, I don’t know if I’m in remission, but ever since I started using it I have not had a symptom.”
Despite these types of testimonies, it’s difficult for members of the cannabis community who feel as though the enforcement-first culture has yet to change to accept former cops. With legalization only months away, both Trudeau and Blair have warned that arrests will continue. Meanwhile, the government has yet to present a plan to offer amnesty for records scarred by the crime of simple possession.
From 2003 to 2013, Toronto police arrested 27,000 people for possession, according to freedom of information requests filed by the Star. Half of these cases, according to the department, also included other charges.
Souccar insists that people who have been convicted for possession were not individuals who simply had a joint in their pocket. Instead, he says, it’s more common that a trafficking charge will be pleaded down to simple possession.
But Jodie Emery, an activist known as Canada’s ‘Princess of Pot,’ says ordinary Canadians are still frequently criminalized for minor offenses. Her first arrest was in Montreal in December of 2016, when officers posing as fans threw her in handcuffs after asking for a selfie.
She believes the industry has been betrayed by the Trudeau government which has shifted its focus of legalization from ending the war on drugs to enforcing the new law and limiting use. According to Emery, the problem has the potential to get even worse under the Cannabis Act, which she says added 45 new cannabis offenses to federal law.
For someone who’s had a tumultuous history with law enforcement, Emery says more cops should come out and tell their stories like Souccar, though she has mixed feelings about former drug warriors like Julian Fantino.
“There’s definitely reason to thank and encourage former prohibitionists who decide to support cannabis,” Emery tells Herb, but in the case of Fantino, she’s less forgiving. “They are cashing in on cannabis without saying that prohibition was wrong, without apologizing for the harm that they’ve done,” she says.
If there’s one thing Fantino won’t do, it’s apologize for his past. That steadfast defense, of a war on drugs which many activists see the remnants of in the new regulations, leaves people like the Emerys reluctant to accept the sincerity of a change of heart.
As for the future, it’s not going to be easy to erase decades of animosity built up between law enforcement and those who have been on the receiving end of the law, but it couldn’t hurt to have a few converts willing to take a hit of their own medicine.
When asked if he would ever use marijuana to treat himself, Fantino says, “Yes, I would certainly,” adding, “I’m absolutely convinced—because I’ve talked to so many people who were being helped—if I needed that kind of help, I’d certainly consider it.”