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Ex-Cops Are Cashing in on Cannabis. Is That Okay?

Published on January 3, 2018 · Last updated July 28, 2020

Imagine if one of the most virulently anti-cannabis politicians in the entire country—after spending decades tirelessly pushing an agenda of more and more arrests and ever stiffer penalties—suddenly pivoted straight into the cannabis business.

Former Toronto Police Chief Julian Fantino once equated legalizing cannabis with legalizing murder. Now he's in the business.

Well, Canadians don’t have to imagine.

Meet Julian Fantino, the former Toronto police chief and ex-cabinet minister who once equated legalizing cannabis with legalizing murder.

Fantino, pictured above, has since defended himself by claiming that quote—“I guess we can legalize murder too”—was taken out of context.

How about this Oct., 2015, tweet, then:

The first problem with that tweet is that it’s incredibly stupid. Saying legal pot would be a boon for organized crime is like saying the end of alcohol prohibition was a boon for bootleggers. It is literally the dumbest of all arguments against legalization, because it is actually a powerful argument for legalization.

The second problem with that tweet is that two years after he posted it, Julian Fantino formed a company called Aleafia to cash in on cannabis.

His partners in this enterprise include a former Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer, and a former member of parliament. All of them actively supported Canada’s “War on Marijuana” under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. None of them lifted a finger to help legalize cannabis over the last two years.

Is there a right way for a former cop to enter the cannabis business? Actually, there is.
Is there a right way for a former cop to enter the cannabis business? Actually, there is.
Naturally, Fantino, the former police chief, falls back on the old “I had to enforce the laws as written” argument to justify all the cannabis arrests and prosecutions he oversaw. But in a markedly confrontational interview with the CBC, he also said “you’re making a huge mistake if you believe that I put everyone in jail that I came across that had marijuana. I gave all kinds of people all kinds of breaks.”

Interesting take—and one that raises a few questions. For starters: On what basis did Fantino decide who deserved a break and who deserved to go to jail? If he gave people “all kinds of breaks” for cannabis as a police chief, why did Fantino go on to campaign for tougher penalties as a Cabinet minister? And how can he justify profiting off cannabis so soon after acting as a national spokesperson against legalization?

Asked all this and more, Fantino offered a refreshingly honest response:

“Now it’s being made a legal item and so therefore there’s no point in me arguing the issue.”

Or, as the Canadian news satire This Hour Has 22 Minutes put it:

Julian Fantino has never wavered from his true belief that Julian Fantino should make money no matter what Julian Fantino needs to say or do to make that money.

To this day, Fantino remains incapable of disavowing his past actions and statements, even though they’re diametrically opposed to the positions he now holds.

“You can frame it anyway you want,” he told the CBC, “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.

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You’re right about that Julian—no one can take from you something that never existed.

First Step: Apologize

Cannabis activist Jodie Emery—who, along with her husband Marc Emery, just accepted a plea deal for operating two unlicensed dispensaries in Canada—recently took to Twitter to decry “cops and politicians who opposed legalization and ruined lives and are now cashing in on legal weed, with no apology.”

In one epic thread, Emery rattled off (with links) the names of 17 prominent former law enforcers who’ve made that move, including a former head of the Royal Mounted Canadian Police, a slew of former police chiefs, a former federal criminal investigator, and the former head of the RCMP Drug Squad.

Second Step: Acknowledge Your Privilege

What’s next? Jeff Sessions stepping down as US Attorney to become general counsel for the National Cannabis Industry Association? Don’t hold your breath (especially since science has proven that holding smoke in your lungs doesn’t get you any higher).

A New York state assemblyman gets off with community service and a $75 fine. Others go to prison.

As long as cannabis remains federally illegal in the United States, nobody from that high up in federal law enforcement is likely to get sucked into the Green Rush. There have been a few high-profile defections to Team Cannabis, though. Example A: the sudden and astonishing roadside conversion of New York Assemblyman Steve Katz.

In March 2013, Katz was stopped for speeding on his way to work. When the state trooper who pulled him over detected the scent of cannabis in his car, a search ensued, followed by a ticket for possession of “a small bag of marijuana”—a charge that was later dismissed after Katz completed 20 hours of court-appointed community service and paid a $75 fine.

A Republican and, at the time, a member of the State Assembly’s Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Committee, Katz had been a staunch public cannabis opponent up to the moment of his bust. He’d voted against a statewide medical marijuana bill just a year prior.

Timing Is Everything

How did Katz explain his sudden conversion? Well, first of all, he said, that was definitely the last time he was gonna vote to make cancer patients suffer through chemo without smoking a joint. Because before he got popped, Katz had already, allegedly, secretly made up his mind to vote his conscience—starting next time. His wife can totally back him up on that.

“I decided to vote what I believed to be the vote of my constituents,” he told Smell the Truth shortly after getting busted, by way of explaining his earlier no vote on the medical cannabis bill. “The day after that I told my wife, ‘Next year, I’m voting for medical marijuana because that’s what I believe in… I knew how I was going to vote a year before the police incident and I felt great about it.”

To steal a line from Dana Carvey’s Church Lady: Well, isn’t that convenient.

Also convenient for Katz: Unlike many of his constituents, getting busted for cannabis didn’t cost him his job, custody of his children, his student financial aid, much money or a day of his freedom. He didn’t even take a leave of absence from lawmaking or pretend to feel bad about getting popped.

Calling cannabis legalization “a core belief” from the time he was in college—except, you know, that time he voted against it—he described getting ticketed as a personal epiphany.

“You’re turning me into a criminal? You got to be kidding,” Katz reportedly thought when the state trooper discovered his stash. At that point, he recalled, Katz resolved to “not only be a champion for medical marijuana, and for its total legalization, but also to become part of the wave that’s building in the industry itself.”

A Different Vote

To that end, Katz did indeed support the same medical marijuana bill he’d earlier opposed, the next time it came up for a vote. He also joined cannabis industry investment network The Arcview Group, and announced his intention of raising $10 million in venture capital to pour into the industry.

In 2016, Katz retired from the New York State Assembly and returned to his veterinary practice. He also announced the launch of Therabis, a full line of CBD-infused dog food and treat supplements that “harness the power of hemp to make your best friends feel better.”

Recently, Pet Age asked him about the company and his plans for the future.

“I’m fascinated with the science and medicinal potential for all the compounds found in the cannabis plant and intend to continue clinical research on all of them,” he said. “I hope and expect to see a spectrum of novel, natural medicinals, supplements and foods based on the extracted, fractionated cannabinoids we are currently studying, including CBD. This represents the future of natural veterinary medicine throughout the 21st century.”

“When I first started wearing this shirt, people thought I was crazy. They thought my idea would destroy America.”
“When I first started wearing this shirt, people thought I was crazy. They thought my idea would destroy America.”
Howard Woolridge twice crossed the entire length of the United States on horseback, while wearing a shirt that read, “Cops Say Legalize Drugs—Ask Me Why.” Woolridge had a long list of reasons to legalize, but none of them involved him personally profiting off selling cannabis or any other licit or illicit drug.

After 15 years as a beat cop in Michigan, Howard Woolridge walked away and co-founded LEAP, to speak out and reform the system.

“When I first started wearing this shirt [in the early 2000s],” Woolridge told High Times, “people thought I was crazy. They thought my idea would destroy America.”

But he wasn’t crazy, just angry and fed up.

After 15 years as a beat cop in Michigan, followed by three years as a detective, Woolridge walked away from the force thoroughly convinced the War on Drugs was an abysmal failure. So in 2002, along with a handful of other ex-police officers, he formed Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) on a shoestring.

Modeled on Vietnam Veterans Against the War, the organization believes that those who’ve seen the damage and futility of the War on Drugs firsthand as police, prosecutors, and judges have a moral obligation to speak out against the ongoing injustice of the system.

Today, under the name Law Enforcement Action Partnership, the long-running non-profit has thousands of members, including 150 accredited speakers who last year made over 2,700 presentations to lawmakers, police organizations and other community groups not usually receptive to calls for legalization. LEAP has also played an active role in campaigning for cannabis legalization in every state that’s passed such a law.

Advocating Before Profiting

And yes, a handful of their members have moved into the legal cannabis industry, but not without first publicly denouncing the Drug War and working to make amends. Like Jason Thomas, a former detention officer for the Prowers County Sheriff’s Office, and a former Deputy Marshall in the small town of Holly, Colorado.

Thomas tells me the majority of people held in the detention center where he worked were there for drug-related crimes. In time he became more and more convinced the drug war was doomed and “laws against cannabis don’t make sense.”

He’d been out of law enforcement for ten years by the time Colorado’s medical cannabis industry started taking off in 2009. He jumped in, at first as a security provider and then as general manager for an edibles manufacturer. In 2013, he founded Avalon Realty Advisors, a commercial real estate company that specializes in the cannabis industry.

Thomas also joined LEAP. He serves as one of their public speakers and played a major role in the 2012 campaign to pass adult-use legalization in Colorado.

“I think former law enforcement personnel can play a major and positive role in the cannabis industry, but it’s definitely a culture clash,” Thomas told me. “Anybody who comes into the industry without first going through some serious soul searching about their past actions probably won’t last very long.”

The Ballad of Barry Cooper

No exploration of ex-cops who switch sides in the War on Marijuana can be complete without the legendary tale of Barry Cooper, the ex-Narc who narced on the Narcs. Once among the top anti-narcotics officers in the United States, Cooper estimates he made more than 800 drug arrests and seized more than 50 vehicles and $500,000 in cash and assets while working for small-town police departments and statewide drug task forces operating in East Texas.

Not that he’s bragging. Quite the opposite.

'I believe I have reduced my bad karma' by working to free drug prisoners.

After a personal psychedelic experience made him rethink his part in the drug war, Cooper left the force in 2007. He began work on an independently produced and distributed DVD called Never Get Busted Again, followed by its sequel for growers Never Get Raided. He then created an online reality show called Kopbusters that involved, among other stunts, setting up a fake “grow house” filled with cameras, and luring an East Texas drug task force inside to make a bust without a proper warrant.

Needless to say, these activities did not endear Barry Cooper to his former colleagues. But it did make him something of a folk hero among underground cannabis growers and dealers. They knew all too well how dirty and corrupt the enforcement side of the War on Marijuana can be when they think nobody’s watching.

Kopbusters also led a judge to release a woman in Odessa, Texas from prison, pending a new trial.

For this public service, Cooper was investigated and harassed by the Texas Rangers (the state police force, not the baseball team). In 2011, officers raided Cooper’s home, confiscated his Kopbuster footage and arrested him for filing a false police report and for possession of a small amount of marijuana.

At the time, he was running for Texas Attorney General. Today, he’s still selling his DVD’s, serves as a personal consultant to those looking to avoid arrest or overturn their convictions, and runs an ayahuasca/ibogaine retreat in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

Barry’s Guide to Not Getting Busted

So what does Cooper think when he sees former law enforcement officers getting directly into the cannabis business?

“The cannabis industry is a free market so it’s improper to require a particular group to do something different than any another, but I personally believe any former cop who arrested citizens for pot, and then enters the legal cannabis industry, should definitely give a percentage of their earnings to the families they ruined,” he told me via email.

“I will never feel completely released from the guilt of my actions because my crimes against humanity were too dark.” Cooper added. “I also suffered untold traumas and loss because of my activism. I lost all my possessions, my freedom, and my family. I was forced to flee the United States and have not been able to return in over five years. I know I deserved every bit of the loss I suffered so I’m not complaining. But I do believe I have reduced my bad karma to its minimum by remaining diligent and faithful in working to free drug prisoners and defendants through my expert witness firm. Maybe law enforcement officers entering the market can use my model of repentance as an example and build upon it. I hope so.”

Photo Credits:
Julian Fantino: michael_swan/Flickr Creative Commons
Police lights: Ben185/iStock
Howard Woolridge: Howard J. Woolridge/Facebook

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David Bienenstock
David Bienenstock
Veteran cannabis journalist David Bienenstock is the author of "How to Smoke Pot (Properly): A Highbrow Guide to Getting High" (2016 - Penguin/Random House), and the co-host and co-creator of the podcast "Great Moments in Weed History with Abdullah and Bean." Follow him on Twitter @pot_handbook.
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