Words: Jesse Huffman
Green Progression: Weed and Snowboarding in British Columbia
Marijuana and snowboarding have been intertwined from day one. There were too many stories, too many perspectives to include in one article, so we zeroed in on one of the epicenters where the drug and nascent sport grew up together: British Columbia.
From weed's place in the region's ski-bum lifestyle and later snowboarding counterculture, to its highly profitable growth and even sale across borders lines, to being involved in revoking the first Olympic medal won by a snowboarder, BC bud was more than just a sideshow in the local snowboard culture. As I would find out, it was a multibillion-dollar industry years before the government finally caved in to legitimization, and it inspired and funded generations of riders in one of the world's most iconic snowboarding locations.
Olympic gold medalist Ross Rebagliati's dad was pissed when he quit a promising high school ski racing career for snowboarding. "I had lots of racing skis and was doing good at it—my dad thought I was throwing it all away for a sport I wasn't even allowed to do," Rebagliati remembers. "I got kicked out of the house for it."
In 1987, snowboarding was lurching from an easily dismissed fringe activity to a loud and neon-colored blip on the national ski industry radar. There were already pro riders and even a Swatch-sponsored World Snowboarding Championship, but at that point Rebagliati and friends still couldn't ride the lifts in Canada. That switched a year later when Blackcomb opened to riders—Rebagliati was on the first chairlift up. Blackcomb embraced snowboarding, creating parks and hosting Craig Kelly's World Snowboard Camp. Rebagliati scored a World Snowboard Camp coaching position in the summer of 1988 and walked away with a Burton sponsorship deal. By 1990, he was a force on the local snowboard competition circuit as both an alpine and freestyle rider.
Rebagliati scored the cover of TransWorld with a method, just one image of eye-popping BC terrain and snow that was broadcast in magazines and videos. Blackcomb's opening prompted an exodus of riders from every province, who quit school and ditched jobs to migrate up Highway 99. What did they find at the end of the Sea-To-Sky Highway? Heaps of dense coastal powder, pillows, and weed.
Down in the States, marijuana was still a Schedule One drug, counted alongside crack cocaine in President Reagan's expanding war on drugs. When the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 was passed, possession of marijuana plants or bud at higher quantities carried heavy sentences for first-time offenders. One hundred plants or kilos would get you a five-year sentence without parole, and 1,000 plants or kilos carried 10 years. Up in BC, marijuana was also a controlled substance, with potential jail time for growing and trafficking. But when it came to enforcement, the playing field differed vastly between countries, and in Canada, between provinces. Whistler was a remote town that existed off the mainstream radar, and people smoked openly on the hill— hot-boxing what would come to be known for generations as the "ganjala."
"I was at the halfpipe event, and we could smell it," recalls Rebagliati, who joined the BC tour in the 1988/89 season as an outsider to the Canadian weed scene. "I was competing with these older guys that were super rowdy from the Interior. It was a clash of cultures—snowboarding was anti-conformist, and I was just a city kid from the coast. For a while I was just afraid of the whole scene, even though I loved the sport and was good at it."
Rebagliati moved to Whistler after graduating in 1990. It didn't take long to get a clear picture of how just how integral weed was to the local routine—his roommates weren't into drinking, but smoking first thing in the morning before racing to catch the first chair up was a daily routine. "There's a big cannabis culture in BC," Rebagliati says. "But particularly in Whistler, because it was all about making the most of the day. I learned about how it felt for me and how I could use it. Other guys would party, but the people I immersed myself with were all about getting first tracks. That was our focus, and the weed was a strain that went through everything we did."
To make the Whistler lifestyle possible, riders would camp in the woods, share rooms, live in their trucks—anything to avoid work, buy a pass, and get another day on the hill. At the same time, they'd spend a premium on good weed, which at that point cost more per ounce than gold.
Trading Green For Gold
Blackcomb and Whistler were twin grails, stacked with windlips, sidehits, cliffs, and massive powder bowls. But it wasn't hard to see the potential across the valley, where white-capped summits ranged unbroken to the eastern horizon. By the mid '90s, the sport had pushed past the chairlift. Snowboard movies and magazines featured more backcountry freestyle, with crews eschewing beat-up resort terrain for the pristine, expansive canvas of the backcountry. Pro riders like Shin Campos, Devun Walsh, DCP, and Martin Gallant recognized the frontier in their own backyard and fired up snowmobiles to pioneer Whistler's backcountry.
Soon, the price of entry for professional snowboarding was climbing above a season pass and rent in a code-breaking flophouse. A truck and snowmobile—plus all the maintenance that went with it—became staples for any professional Canadian backcountry snowboarder. Add relatively lenient local enforcement, an isolated location, and an exchange rate offering 130 percent Canadian on the US dollar, and you had the perfect incentives for turning a seasonal profit on the high price of BC bud.
Shin Campos’ prowess on a snowboard and knowledge of the BC backcountry landed him heavy film segments year after year, during his professional career.
"I knew more than 20 riders who were growing in a basement or a room for four months of the year to subsidize their careers," says Shin Campos, who moved to the coast from the Kootenay area in Interior BC. Campos got busted with four grams in 1993—enough to land in court but come out with community service and have nothing on his record. The sentence found him picking up trash in a parking lot, which happened to be photographed by a snowboard shooter, and ended up as an ad for Swag clothing, one of Campos' early sponsors. Campos pointed out that a pound of good BC weed could bring $3,000 US—a healthy return on a minimal amount of indoor farming.
In the economic life cycle, growing was decent in terms of profit. But according to another former pro snowboarder, who would speak only on the condition of anonymity—let's call him John Paton—the real money was in transporting the product south across the border. The profit was hundreds of thousands to millions, depending on how much you could ship. But any quantity that commanded that price would amount to drug trafficking, a much heavier offense carrying decades in prison. And where there's that much money, there's death and criminal elements.
Paton had stepped up from growing to brokering the exchange of 200 pounds of premium BC weed from Canada to Washington and even transported the shipment to a small plane that would fly south and make a drop just across the border. Paton described the scene: He'd been standing in a remote Washington forest for hours, waiting to confirm that the shipment had made it across, watching nervously as the evening drained the last scraps of daylight from the sky. Finally, he heard the roar of the plane's approach and the thud of hundreds of pounds of weed touching down. Then he heard a massive bang. Back at his hotel that night, Paton started getting frantic phone calls. The plane had clipped a tree, crashing and killing the pilot, a man with kids and a family that Paton knew personally. Paton called in the plane crash to 911, telling them he'd been hunting in the woods that evening.
The second story Paton told was clipped short. A marijuana deal went bad, and his friend ended up murdered and left in the trunk of a car. Paton still had to follow through with picking up the money from the Stateside buyer, which he stuffed into the side panels of a car and drove back north across the Canadian border. "That's the problem if you make it illegal," Paton says, "you get the criminal element involved." He wouldn't elaborate further, and he didn't stop growing himself. But that was the end of big weed business for him.
Drug trafficking has always been a serious affair. And it seemed by the end of the '90s, snowboarding was getting serious, too. Whistler had been a haven for party animals like the Whiskey crew, who were famous for sending it deep under the influence. But even they were drying out as the media landscape shifted toward the massive scale of the snowmobile-accessed backcountry. You had to get up early and have your shit together out there.
Weed, however, continued to be a mainstay. Riders like Rebagliati and Campos talk about weed's potential to focus your mind and relax in intense situations. While that didn't work for me, I witnessed that sort of use firsthand the second season I lived in Whistler. We were filming for the same video project as Mike Michalchuk, the Alberta madman who had made a career on his massive corked-out spins. Each day we snowmobiled into the backcountry, Michalchuk would roll one in the parking lot and smoke the whole thing. We'd sled around for a bit, looking for a jump spot, and he'd roll and smoke another. We'd start building—usually a cheese wedge that you could hide a full-size SUV in—and he'd roll and smoke another. We'd slip and prep the takeoff, and he'd repeat. By the time he sent it, launching far past our tracks and rotating more to boot, I lost count of the joints he'd finished.
Rebagliati himself had been chasing the World Cup across the globe during the explosion of sled-powered backcountry access in Whistler. He'd honed in on alpine racing, a discipline he was dominating. He was still an avid weed smoker, but with marijuana on the list of drugs banned by the World Cup, he was content putting it aside each season. Competitive snowboarding in every discipline had become more and more rigorous, with off-season training mandatory to stay in the game. And the sport had just passed a critical threshold toward becoming mainstream: As of the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, both alpine snowboarding and halfpipe were official events.
With the Nagano games approaching, Rebagliati hadn't smoked in months, passing on the drug whenever it was offered, which in his social circles was a lot. "I thought there was no way I'd test positive," Rebagliati says.
Rebagliati scorched the course on his second run, clinching Gold—the first Olympic medal awarded to a snowboarder. But three days later, Rebagliati was pulled aside by a coach who told him he'd tested positive for THC. All he could think was that the exposure from his friends smoking had left just enough in his system to trigger the test. The medal was stripped from him, and he was locked in a Japanese jail for further questioning. After appeals from the Canadian Olympic Association, the medal was reinstated, based on the grounds marijuana wasn't on the list of IOC-banned substances.
At this point, a bewildered, exhausted, and exonerated Rebagliati flew to LA to tape The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. The border guard at the LAX airport made it clear that she didn't have to let Rebagliati in. When Rebagliati finally got home, a sickening realization set in: His snowboarding accomplishment was being overshadowed by the controversy ignited by his drug test and temporary loss of the medal.
By 2000, Alaska, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Colorado, and Nevada had all joined California in legalizing medical marijuana, and BC was moving in that direction with "compassion clubs" dispensing marijuana for medical purposes. But the medical marijuana policy was still highly contentious, and Rebagliati found himself a go-to media source for stories about drugs and sports. He was tagged at the US border, which can deny you entry arbitrarily. The X Games was about to introduce boardercross, an event Rebagliati imagined transitioning into after the Olympics.
Despite the investigation that overshadowed his Olympic win in the eyes of many, much of the Rebagliati’s Whistler community saw through the outdated system that attempted to take his medal, supporting the hometown hero regardless of the controversy.
"I was planning on continuing my career—I was only 26 in Nagano," Rebagliati says. "But after 9/11, I was put on a no-fly list. I had a six-figure, multi-year contract. I had to say, 'Sorry, keep the money; keep the product.' I had to stay here. I had to drop out."
I lived or rode in Whistler for four consecutive seasons starting in 1998. In that time, snowmobile access remained the benchmark for backcountry snowboarding, with crews from Standard Films to Treetop Productions scouring the nirvana of Whistler's backcountry. Jonaven Moore's hair-raising descents and Peter Line and teammates' inauguration of the Forum stepdown set a bar that was being ratcheted higher and higher each year.
Kale Stephens, along with Shin and others, pioneered many a backcountry zone, during the beginning of the snowmobile-accesssed backcountry boom in BC.
The push to pad your season with profits from growing was stronger than ever. By the time I moved back to the States full-time, I knew of multiple grow-op failures: a house that burned down, a house that flooded, indoor and outdoor farms raided. In each case, the loss was acute—a season's revenue, the loss of a winter's worth of wages. Yet each time, the grower started another operation somewhere else.
The return on investment was just too good. A Fraser Institute study estimated that there were upwards of 17,500 grow-ops in British Columbia in 2000. Each of these growers was pulling in around $20,000 a harvest, with up to four possible harvests a year. The value of weed exports from BC that year were estimated at nearly $2 billion.
Kirk Tousaw, a leading marijuana defense attorney in Canada, explained that unlike the US, where drug laws vary state-to-state, Canada shares one national drug law. What's different is how the local police are allowed to interpret the law in how they enforce it. In a province where public sentiment was in support of normalizing marijuana use, enforcement was relatively lax. The Fraser Institute study sampled Vancouver, BC, area grow-op busts—and found 55 percent received no jail time. The overall math was that in a bust you had an 87 percent chance of getting 90 days or less.
Three winter Olympics later, snowboarding had officially arrived. Whistler had hosted the 2010 Winter Games, fulfilling its promise as an international adventure sports Mecca. Millions were invested to transform the winding Sea-To-Sky Highway from a two-lane, white-knuckled crucible to a proper four-lane tourism conduit. Millions more were poured into Whistler's snowmaking capacity, while the village saw all sorts of upgrades. The terrain and snowpack has anchored a whole new generation of the most progressive backcountry riders from around Canada, and the world. But the likelihood of having another film crew, or just a crew of bros, beat you to your favorite backcountry zone? Very high.
Nearly two decades after his gold medal run, snowboarding's original Olympic antihero Rebagliati has become a vocal activist for responsible cannabis use and legalization. The threshold for testing positive for marijuana is so much higher, the level of the drug in Rebagliati's bloodstream wouldn't have registered, while marijuana has been moved to the list of recreational drugs that is only prohibited from use on the day of competition.
"When Colorado and Washington went recreational, that was the big flag, the green light," says Rebagliati, who launched his own cannabis brand, "Ross' Gold" in 2013. Rebagliati's focus is on normalizing the drug, including all of its medical uses, especially for managing pain and stress, two things any elite athlete knows a lot about.
At one point, Rebagliati, and riders across the world, would buy baggies of weed from shady dealers. Now Rebagliati has joined the mainstream by bringing on finance-sector business experts to launch his cannabis brand. Here in Vermont, I know a guy who exclusively day trades in weed stocks. It's big business. "I'm a big-picture thinker—I knew snowboarding would blow up," Rebagliati says. "I see the same thing with cannabis, except it will be a trillion-dollar industry, the biggest on earth."
Campos says he doesn't smoke much himself these days and explains that the incentive to grow is all but gone. The exchange rate doesn't support high profits. But even more significant, the market just isn't there. Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Alaska, and Washington, DC, have legalized recreational use, 16 states have decriminalized marijuana, and 23 states support medical marijuana. In Canada, the national drug law is still tied up in knots, but recently elected Liberal Party Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made it clear the country is moving toward legalization in 2017. And BC of course isn't waiting— anyone can now buy cannabis at dispensaries like any other product.
Weed and snowboarding may be intertwined, but it turns out their trajectories aren't entirely parallel. One was illegal, a crime that has carried heavy jail time for in the past. The other was an activity and lifestyle that reluctantly turned into a sport. Just think about all the efforts to legalize weed—hardcore competitors aside, how many original snowboarders would have tried that hard to transform their passion into an Olympic event? Ask any old, crusty Whistler local if they'd still be happy hiding out in anonymity rather than being at the epicenter of a worldwide marketing push. If you're measuring success by riding powder, in the closet seems like it might be better than out.
Plenty of riders still puff. Just how much of the antihero, anti-conformist culture is left? Whether we like it or not, snowboarding has become mainstream, bucking ratings as the Olympic's largest TV draw. And it may be that very venue that determines which snowboarders smoke or don't. Out in the sled-accessed winter wilderness, there's no one to watch you burn one. But on the podiums of world tour contests, and in the panopticon of the internet, exposure has never been greater.
There are still riders who won't tame their image for sponsors or a career. When Andrew Geeves moved to Whistler at age 16, he had already been kicked out of high school and thrown in jail for selling weed. For Geeves, BC was actually a mellower scene than the one he left in Winnipeg, with more hard drugs. A prodigious teenager ripper, Geeves quickly transitioned from a flow rider park rat to filming with Sandbox. When an opportunity to join with the newly minted DC Snowboarding team came up, he took it, filming a segment in 2009 with Standard Films. Geeves says he was added to the roster for "character, because I party and am the way I am. But they weren't too stoked on my shit when they saw the real me."
Geeves had grown up with weed—his parents grew it, and that's how he could afford to buy new snowboard gear. He wasn't about to change up the way he lived his life and, as a consequence, was dropped. Geeves doesn't regret anything and still films with David Brocklebank and the DOPE crew—that values fun above serious high-stress productions. It's a throwback to the Wildcats and Shorty's movies, Geeves' favorite era of snowboard media, when riders partied as hard as they rode and social media wasn't there to make your night out into a viral meme. For him, weed may be more legit, but smoking it as a pro snowboarder, and everything that comes with that, is not.
"I remember back in the day, you'd try and be inconspicuous," Geeves says. "Now people are smoking and lighting up everywhere. It's way more acceptable in society. It's not a drug; it's a plant. Weed is more mellow in people's eyes, but now that snowboarding is on TV and skateboarding is on TV, in people's eyes it's more about professionalism. More kids are trying so hard to be the next big things, and with that comes responsibilities of how you present yourself to kids, and a lot of people won't be smoking in the public eye."
But, Geeves allows, "I guess if you want to win, you might have to take it more seriously and not smoke a joint before you drop in and do a double-cork contest run."
Indeed, slopestyle courses have become larger and more consequential to keep up with the increasing cork count in competitive snowboarding. A Canadian Sochi Olympics competitor who spoke on the condition of anonymity—let's call him George Roberts—says the stakes of Olympic-level athleticism is at the heart of snowboarding splitting into two. One segment is focused on the riding and lifestyle, while the other is focused on the sport.
"More people take it more seriously than they used to," Roberts says. "The first year I was on the pro tour, in 2008, most of us were smoking pot and drinking beer. Now people show up with the coach, the physio, the wax tech, instead of just showing up to ride. The focus is on being an Olympic athlete, not a snowboarder."
By his own description, Roberts smokes a lot of weed. He was so reluctant to clean up for the Sochi Winter games that he waited until just eight days beforehand to lay off the green. No surprise, he's in support of legalization across Canada, mostly for medical purposes—instead of Advil he uses CBD, a cannabinoid that has little to no psychoactive affect and has been heralded for its anti-inflammatory properties. Roberts doesn't want to be publicly associated with cannabis, because for all his personal passion, he's in just the position that Geeves spoke about. He'd rather have younger riders make up their own minds on whether to use or not
After a decade of competing, Roberts focused his past season on sledding and filming in the Whistler backcountry. Weed remains a major part of his lifestyle, even if he now recognizes he's better off without it in heavy park sessions and tries his best to keep consumption to times off-hill.
"But it's so hard not to when you're deep in the mountains," Roberts admits. "It's so peaceful out there that you just have to smoke one at the end of the day. There's nothing really better than that—a good day in the backcountry, then watching the sunset, smoking with your homies. That is snowboarding, to me."
Especially in British Columbia, weed and snowboarding grew up together. The drug is inching closer to legalization, while snowboarding transforms further into a "sport." Each is in the midst of a chaotic shift toward the mainstream. Growers and dealers seeing their profits go up in smoke as the industry becomes government regulated are likely pissed, but the average user can worry less, walking around with a bag in their pocket. Snowboarders concerned more with the culture than the sport aren't thrilled with Olympic hype and the push toward competitors becoming "athletes." The stakes may be different, but one thing is for sure: snowboarding and weed, especially in BC, will always be part of the same strain.