Joe Oliver joins Israeli-Canadian medical marijuana startup

Former finance minister Joe Oliver, left, meets with staff at the Volcani Agriculture Institute in Israel.

Canada’s former finance minister has joined an Israeli-Canadian medical-cannabis startup.

Joe Oliver, who spent four years as a Conservative MP, is raising funds for PlantExt, an Israeli-based company that specializes in researching the medical benefits of cannabis, and will serve as its chairman.

“I don’t normally get involved in startup operations,” Oliver told The CJN, but “I thought this was quite an exciting operation.”

PlantExt is a private company that was co-founded by Canadian businessman Al Shefsky – who spent two decades as the CEO of a resource-exploration company – as well as a group of well-connected Israelis. PlantExt will work in partnership with the Volcani Agriculture Institute, a government-funded Israeli research centre.


Israel has been a global leader in medical marijuana since 1996, when it became one of the first countries to support research into the plant’s medicinal benefits. Last February, the government formally legalized the cultivation, manufacture and export of medical marijuana – a decision that quickly spawned about 500 companies rushing to capitalize on the nascent market, according to the Guardian.

Shefsky and Amir Gissin, a former Israeli consul general in Toronto who now sits on PlantExt’s board of directors, courted Oliver during a fundraising event last year.

“The science is emanating from Israel and we’ve raised some private money in Canada, and we’ll be raising more,” Oliver explained.

The company employs Israeli scientists to test non-psychoactive cannabis extract to treat diseases. Medical marijuana is prescribed to help treat cancer, dementia, epilepsy, PTSD, glaucoma and bowel inflammation, among other ailments.

Medical marijuana
Medical marijuana

The researchers at PlantExt will focus specifically on treating bowel problems. The team aims to help those who suffer from Crohn’s and colitis – issues that affect a disproportionate number of Ashkenazi Jews.

They’re hopeful they can help deliver an over-the-counter product within the year, Oliver said.

It’s an ambitious plan that he admits would have been harder five years ago, before the current Liberal government announced its plans to legalize marijuana.

“I think there would have been less willingness to invest,” he said. Even though PlantExt is a medical company – it is technically and legally unrelated to recreational marijuana, and medical cannabis has been legal in Canada since 2001 – the social stigma would have scared off some Canadian investors.

There’s opportunity here in terms of capital raising and distribution that may not exist in other countries.
– Joe Oliver

“Attitudes are changing,” Oliver said. “There’s opportunity here in terms of capital raising and distribution that may not exist in other countries…. The U.S. would be the normal place you’d think an upstart company might go to, but because Canada is at the forefront, it’s quite open. That shouldn’t matter, in a sense – but in another sense, it does.”

Oliver is the latest high-profile member of Stephen Harper’s government to transition into the medical-marijuana industry, following former veterans affairs minister Julian Fantino and MP Gary Goodyear.

In an interview with CBC Radio’s As it Happens, Fantino – whose staunch anti-marijuana stance was crystallized in 2004, when he compared the futility of legalizing weed to the legalization of murder – defended his position as “addressing a different era at that time.”

While Oliver has never spoken so extremely about recreational marijuana, and didn’t want to speculate on Fantino’s change of heart, he said he understands the appeal of getting in on the ground floor of an emerging market.

“I think people see opportunities,” he said. “There’s clearly an opportunity in that whole sector – we’re talking about a multibillion-dollar market.”

As for Oliver personally, he sees no hypocrisy in promoting medical marijuana after being a part of a staunchly anti-drug government.

“I have always favoured the use of cannabis for medical purposes,” he said. “I see no issue with that. In fact, I’d go broader and say it’s wrong to prevent people from access to something that is not harmful, but can treat their disease.”