Former Olympic Gold Medalist: Pro Athletes Should Be Allowed to Use Marijuana
For many professional athletes, cannabis use can be a career damaging faux pas. The MLB, NFL, NHL, and the all-encompassing World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) have policies prohibiting marijuana. When athletes are caught with THC in their bodies, the outcome can be more than just embarrassing.
Professional athletes face fines, sanctions, suspensions, and can even lose sponsorships for using marijuana. The list of star athletes who have gotten into trouble for – allegedly – using (or at least possessing) marijuana includes Denver Broncos Laurence Maroney and Von Miller, Allen Iverson, Carmello Anthony, Randy Moss, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and the most decorated Olympic athlete in history, Michael Phelps.
This was the case for Ross Rebagliati, a Canadian snowboarder who in 1998 took home the first-ever Olympic gold medal for snowboarding in the slalom. Shortly after receiving it, the medal was stripped from him by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the result of a small amount of THC found in his system during routine drug screening.
For Rebagliati, then a wide-eyed 26-year-old, losing the medal was devastating and unexpected. “It was pretty traumatic to go through that experience, to have the medal taken away from me and have my achievement be forever associated with marijuana,” he says.
Making the Olympic team was something he had dreamed of. Snowboarding was just starting to be taken seriously, and he had been a part of the movement for the previous seven years, having transitioned from ski racing in 1991.
Prior to those Winter Olympics 16 years ago, marijuana use wasn’t an issue, says Rebagliati. At the time, marijuana wasn’t even listed as a banned substance by the IOC.
“I did my drug testing before I left for Nagano,” he says. “Those three drug tests that I did in Canada were made public and it was revealed that in all three of those tests I tested positive for marijuana as well. Nothing was ever brought to our attention with regards to that.”
It wasn’t until after he had won a gold medal that the presence of THC became a problem.
“It made it look like they were waiting for me,” he speculates. “If marijuana was such a big deal that you could lose your medal over it, you would think that if you tested positive for it in all your dug tests before you went that that would be something you would be notified of or something.”
After two unsuccessful appeals, the medal was finally reinstated when it was brought to light that marijuana was in fact not listed by the IOC as a banned substance, making Rebagliati the only Olympic athlete to have a medal reinstated after being stripped under those circumstances.
Rebagliati’s ordeal and vindication thrust him into the spotlight. Willing or not, he became an advocate for marijuana as the media circus tents set up around him.
“Most athletes, even today, would probably agree that even now they wouldn’t want to get tangled up in [the marijuana debate] the way I did,” he says.
In the late 1990s the medical marijuana community was nowhere nearly as prevalent as it is today. Only four states in the US had passed allowances for medical marijuana – California, Alaska, Oregon, and Washington – and it was mostly seen as a joke, something only useful to glaucoma patients. President Bill Clinton had famously sleazed his way out of the issue of his own personal use, famously claiming that he didn’t inhale. Rebagliati became somewhat of a punch line, despite his world class athletic accomplishments.
“It takes a lot of motivation to do what I did,” he says. “You have to be really on your game.”
Out-dated stoner stereotypes aside, Rebagliati found himself sticking up for cannabis use. Soon he was defending not just the harmless nature of recreational use, but also advocating the health benefits associated with marijuana, from its anti-inflammatory properties to its ability to help with sleep and recovery.
“I’ve been through the wringer for 15 years,” he says. “I came out of the pot closet 15 years ago and I’ve been labeled with this for a long time.”
His openness about marijuana manifested in problems entering the US, an issue which following 9/11 earned Rebagliati a spot on the no-fly list.
“If you go through any border crossing into the states and you admit to using marijuana or any drug at any point in your life, they’ll pretty much not let you in,” he says. “And then you won’t get let in any more after that based on the fact that you weren’t let in that one time.”
Rebagliati continues to be the guy people go to when athletes are caught using marijuana. He’s been featured in publications such as Sports Illustrated and USA Today for his defense of athletes using marijuana, and he’s not shy about saying that more athletes may be using marijuana than the public may be aware of.
“There were lots of athletes that did it, that’s for sure,” says Rebagliati of his time as an Olympian. “We used cannabis on a regular basis, in the off-season especially, just to get motivated and go to the gym six days a week.”
But it’s not just snowboarders that find marijuana useful, according to Rebagliati. “It’s true that in a lot of sports that involve healthy living and extreme levels of performance you’ll find people using cannabis on a regular basis,” he says.
The credibility he’s established over the years sometimes causes people to be more open about their cannabis consumption than they may be otherwise.
“The athletes that use cannabis that I’ve come across at different charity events or what not over the years have confided in me that, oh yeah, they’ve been using for years and years,” he says. Even politicians have approached Rebagliati to let him know they’re on the level, he claims.
All this may be a sign that the tide may finally be changing. With the legal marijuana market opening this year in both Colorado and Washington, it is becoming harder and harder to justify sanctioning athletes for using a harmless substance.
Both teams in this year’s Super Bowl - Denver and Seattle - hail from cities that are pioneering legal marijuana. With the widely known medicinal benefits associated with cannabis consumption, prohibiting athletes from partaking is looking increasingly foolish.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell recently implied that the league might be adopting a more progressive stance on marijuana. He said that the NFL would “continue to support the evolution of medicine.” This could be good news for players who risk concussions and other serious injuries, giving them a more natural and healthy alternative to the potentially toxic mix of pharmaceutical narcotics often prescribed to professional athletes.
Advocacy from people like Rebagliati may finally be influencing Olympic drug policy. Last year, WADA raised the allowable threshold for THC from 15 to 150 nanograms per milliliter (for a bit of context, consider that five is enough to get you a DUID in Colorado). The idea behind the change is to avoid false positives, allowing athletes to partake in the off-season. Still, WADA views marijuana as a performance-enhancing drug, citing its effects on pain tolerance and confidence levels during competition.
But Rebagliati doesn’t see it that way.
“I think it’s performance enhancing as much as eating healthy is performance enhancing.,” he says. “To me it’s just part of a healthy lifestyle in general.”
“I always found that having a little puff before I went to the gym just made the experience that much more enjoyable, I was that much more motivated to do my workout, and after my workouts I use a little bit more to relax and let my muscles recover from the workout. So in a round-about way you could say that’s performance enhancing.”
Rebagliati’s passion for marijuana has now led him into the marijuana industry. Last year he started Ross’ Gold, a medical marijuana dispensary in Whistler, British Columbia, and he hopes to have the business rolling in April when new, more relaxed cannabis laws go into effect in Canada.
“For me the writing was on the wall in a lot of different ways,” he says. With travel to the US no longer an option, his decision to enter the medical marijuana industry and provide people with the medicine he has spent most of his adult life promoting made perfect sense. “I realized that these things that have been taken away from me are things I wanted to protect,” he says.
Rebagliati is proud of the example he has set. As he forges ahead in the marijuana industry, perhaps other athletes will stand up for their own responsible use.