Federal ministers defend cannabis rollout after Enquête uncovers ties to organized crime

Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor called the background checks done by her department "exhaustive," reiterating that they found no connections to organized crime in the companies approved to produce cannabis.

Investigation finds Mafia links to legal producers as health minister calls background checks 'exhaustive'

The federal government conducts background checks on companies applying to become licensed cannabis producers. Some of those companies, a Radio-Canada report found, have investors linked to organized crime. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Federal ministers defended the rollout of legal cannabis Friday after a Radio-Canada investigation revealed that the financial backers of some producers have links to organized crime.

The French-language investigative program Enquête found that two individuals connected to illegal drug trafficking, including one with links to the Rizzuto crime family, were able to invest in a major legal cannabis producer.

Another individual with ties to the illegal market was able to sell his cannabis business to one of Canada's biggest legal players in exchange for shares in the company.

"It's not something that happens overnight, but there are laws in place to ensure that we do everything we can to capture individuals that are involved in organized crime," said Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould says the federal government's strict regulatory process is in place to ensure organized crime stays out of the legal cannabis industry. (CBC News)

RCMP Supt. Yves Goupil told Enquête that while the police force conducts background checks on those applying to be licensed producers, uncovering everyone who is investing in the venture is a much more costly process.

He said the RCMP cannot afford to employ deep surveillance techniques on every producer.

Opposition parties said it's a troubling sign that, two weeks into the era of legal cannabis, the black market appears to have infiltrated Canada's legal supply chain.

"On its face, problems begin to emerge," said Conservative Member of Parliament Gérard Deltell.

NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice said it's essential that the government uncover who is financing Canada's legal cannabis producers.

"They take the patch off their back and put on their jacket and tie and become a legitimate businessmen and continue to profit off drugs," he said.

Making the verification process more difficult is the use of trusts, the Enquête report found, which hide the names of beneficiaries from the public.

"We have robust physical and personnel security screening processes in place for the existing industry designed to guard against infiltration by organized crime," said Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction Minister Bill Blair.

He pointed to the fact that all officers and board members of a licensed producer are subject to background checks.

Blair said the government has also proposed expanding those checks to board members of any company that controls the corporation doing the actual cannabis production.

Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor defended the government's screening process as 'exhaustive.' (CBC News)

Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor defended the government's cannabis law, calling the current verification system "exhaustive."

She reiterated that Health Canada had found no connections to organized crime in the companies approved to produce cannabis.

"It's a new regime. We will ensure that the right resources are in place," she said.

At a news conference in Churchill, Man., Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged there is still work to do be done the cannabis file, but that he is happy with the rollout so far.

With files from Radio-Canada

About the Author

Colin Harris

Journalist

Colin Harris is a journalist with CBC in Montreal.