Rick Hanson spent four decades in policing — more than seven of those years as Calgary’s chief — where he made a career out of fighting organized crime and the local drug trade.
Nearly three years into his retirement, it may come as a surprise that he is now heavily involved in the cannabis industry.
But Hanson said Wednesday he is among a growing number of former senior police officers from across Canada who are leveraging their experiences to ensure legalization is done safely while eliminating criminals from the supply chain.
“There are a tonne of risks,” said Hanson, an adviser at the Canadian Cannabis Chamber of Commerce and a senior vice-president at Merrco, an online payment processing firm for marijuana sales.
“You just don’t go into the organized crime world and say, ‘Thank you very much, we’re doing this now,’ and they go, ‘Oh, OK; we’ll just find something else to do.’ ”
As Calgary’s police chief, Hanson was opposed to legalization, having argued alongside then-premier Alison Redford that loosening marijuana laws would send the wrong message to Canadians, especially youth, that using the drug is acceptable, despite health risks.
Hanson said his previous reservations have been rendered meaningless by the federal government’s decision to make Canada the first G7 nation to legalize cannabis.
“That ship sailed,” he said, adding he remains concerned about pot’s impact on the developing minds of youth.
Now, he said the question is whether governments can approve distribution and retail models that restrict access for youth and prevent illicitly made marijuana from entering the retail chain.
He isn’t alone in turning his attention to the nascent industry, expected to be worth billions in annual sales.
Former Toronto police chief Bill Blair, now a Liberal MP, has been leading the charge to legalize cannabis in government. Julian Fantino, a former Ontario Provincial Police commissioner and Toronto police chief, is executive chairman of the medical cannabis firm Aleafia.
Raf Souccar, a former RCMP deputy commissioner, faced conflict of interest allegations after serving on the federal task force for legalizing cannabis and later becoming CEO of Aleafia, though he rejected the claims, according to the National Post.
Hanson believes in strong controls around the production and distribution of cannabis, worried retailers could be “owned and operated by frontmen for organized crime. Who’s doing that check?
“Who’s doing the check on the product coming through the backdoor that’s going to be sold?”
Hanson backs the publicly run model adopted by Ontario, which plans 150 stores by 2020, beginning with a batch of 40, all run by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario.
The country’s largest province, he said, recognizes “they want to legalize, but they don’t want to normalize. They’re not going to have cannabis stores on every corner; they know that normalizes it in the eyes of kids.”
Hanson wouldn’t say whether he believes Alberta should follow suit with a publicly run system, noting it’s up to the government to “weigh all the facts and come out with a model that will address the serious issues and concerns.”
Still, the former chief’s position places him at odds with the leadership of the Canadian Cannabis Chamber of Commerce, where Hanson serves as public safety adviser.
Peter Pilarski, the group’s president, said the chamber philosophically believes the government should set the rules for retailers and “get out of the way.” He said private stores stand a better chance of stamping out the black market because there is more opportunity to cut costs and diversify product lines to meet different target markets.
“Everybody’s allowed to have their own opinion,” Hanson said. “I come from a different perspective. I present the challenges as they need to be addressed. If there is a fundamental difference in philosophy, then so be it. It’s healthy in an organization, such as that, to be aware of all the arguments and all the challenges.”
Alberta has tapped the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission as the sole wholesaler for cannabis, a move meant to ensure only regulated pot grown by federally licensed producers is sold in Alberta.
But the province hasn’t revealed whether it will follow Ontario’s lead for retail or adopt a private model, such as one rolled out this week by Manitoba, which has asked provincial authorities to oversee and regulate the market, with private companies running the stores.
The Alberta government said last month that online sales may not be initially allowed, given concerns that current technology cannot verify consumers ordering and receiving the pot are old enough.
Hanson, who believes online sales are critical to make pot available to all adults without normalizing use among youth, has attempted to change the government’s mind. He’s a senior executive at a company that uses credit card information to verify up to 200 data points, including age, to verify a consumer is legally allowed to buy pot in their province.
The former police chief has registered as a lobbyist to convince Alberta Justice and the premier’s office that online sales “can be implemented with all the regulations applied at the time of ordering.”
“I’m actually convinced that they considered the feedback,” he said.
Alberta is expected to release new details of its cannabis plans with new legislation this winter.