How Public Officials Got into the Weed Game

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How public officials got into the weed game Public servants and former politicians are buying into legal pot, raising concerns of cronyism and conflict of interest

In 2013, Joshua Tepper became president of Health Quality Ontario, a government body that evaluates and helps guide the province’s health policy. His team advises on services ranging from mental health to end-of-life care and he began earning a salary as a civil servant of about $400,000. The following year, Tepper also started working with one of Canada’s largest marijuana companies, Mettrum Ltd. Between 2014 and 2016, he was listed as an “independent director” of the company, where he was paid for his services and acquired shares that, at the time, were worth about $110,000.

“It seems to be the very textbook definition of conflict of interest,” says Daniel Weinstock, a law professor at McGill University and a former Canada Research Chair on ethics and political philosophy. “Public good should be the only [interest] that gets folded into the legislation.” In legalizing marijuana, federal and provincial governments have been criticized for creating an oligopoly of major companies like Mettrum, called licensed producers, rather than a free-market model, which would grant licenses to mom-and-pop dispensaries and more easily enable Canadians to grow pot at home. Politicians justify the oligopoly by arguing that licensed producers make the purist weed and sell it most safely.

But civil servants like Tepper, along with past and present politicians of all parties, have found their way into these firms. While there is no evidence of undue influence, there is at least the appearance of  a conflict of interest surrounding a well-connected few. A former premier, police chief and members of Parliament, along with a past RCMP commissioner, a sitting senator—government men and women are now executives, advisers and shareholders in the country’s licensed pot companies, which will enjoy a privileged commercial position under the legalization bill  introduced Thursday by the Trudeau government.

Tepper says that he underwent strict clearance with the Ontario ethics commissioner before becoming involved with Mettrum. Health Quality Ontario has not reported specifically on the topic of marijuana, and he says he used vacation time to attend the board meetings. “There’s no overlap,” Tepper said in an interview. “Everything’s separate, separate e-mail account, separate everything.” Mettrum listed him as an independent director until August 2016, but Tepper says he stepped away from the role at least nine months before that and was simply not removed from their documents. Mettrum reported paying Tepper $76,250 between 2014 and 2015, but he says he only went to three to five meetings because he didn’t want to use up all his vacation time, so he was not compensated the full amount. He says he was paid $1,000 for one meeting he attended, and in total, “I don’t think I broke $10,000.”

By March 2016, Tepper was listed as owning 70,000 shares in Mettrum, which were worth about $112,000 at the time. He said he doesn’t own any shares in the company right now, though when he was on the board “there may have been some nominal accrual.” When asked by Maclean’s what he did with the shares, he said he did not recall if or when he sold them. While Health Quality Ontario hasn’t reported on marijuana, the organization did include statistics on drug use, including marijuana, in a report on mental health and addiction services in 2015. For that report, Tepper and a colleague wrote the foreword, stating their hope that the report would inform a provincial council that provides “direction on investments” in mental health and addiction services.

Some say there might not be a conflict. “Simply holding the shares while being the civil servant isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” says Chris MacDonald, a professor at Toronto’s Ryerson University and a consultant on business ethics. “It all depends on the kinds of decisions he’s faced with.” The Ontario government as a whole does face decisions affecting licensed producers: while a federal task force has given recommendations on how to distribute marijuana, the province must figure out which stores or pharmacies will sell the weed and from where they will source it. Ontario is home to the highest number of licensed producers in Canada, 24 out of 42, including Mettrum’s warehouse in Bowmanville. It is unclear what role Health Quality Ontario will play in these decisions, but Tepper says, “there’s nothing at all in our mandate that would touch on this space.”

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