Higher: Cannabis as Holistic Herb for Extreme Athletes and Sliding Sport Enthusiasts

According to the British Journal of Sport Medicine, “Athletes engaged in extreme sports are likely to use cannabis.”

Many who’ve stood in a chairlift line at a winter resort, walked past a skatepark that’s just off the beaten path, or sat barefoot on a beach while surfers ride lunar nudges to the sea would know by little more than following their nose that the many cultures of extreme/sliding sport are deeply connected to cannabis usage.

Why is that? Is it a performance enhancer? Really? To the non-smoker, the idea of skateboarding down a handrail on the streets or flying down an Alaskan face while dodging avalanches is scary enough sober, nevermind high. Do the participants of these sports have death-wishes, Olympic dreams or holistic life hacks? Are they artists, athletes or both? And should cannabis usage truly be considered a ‘doping’ device if, after all it is little more than a ‘perspective enhancer?’

Local circles in the magnetic action sports mecca of Whistler know the multi-disciplinary talents of one Kye Petersen. He’s an industry prince, son of the late king of the Tantalus Mountain range, Trevor Petersen and he can be seen skiing and often starring in a series of award-winning films made in the past decade: Session 1242, The Edge of Never, All.I.Can, In Search and many more.

“In general, I smoke for the holistic and spiritual benefits,” Petersen says. “Sometimes before a hike or once I’m down from a big-mountain line… it’s a source of mountain comfort to have on me just in case, and I have it at all times when I’m out there.”

Petersen doesn’t compete in Olympic events but does try his hand at big-mountain competitions from time to time. This kind of contest will not likely be seen in the Olympics anytime soon, mainly because of it’s natural, creative nature (something which the holistic, perspective and artistic enhancing properties of cannabis may very well affect in terms of what lines one chooses to ride as well as what tricks one does on the way down.)

“If I already have a goal in mind then smoking before I drop-in can really calm me down, but it’s important to have your priorities straight and use the right weed at the right time. It all largely depends on what strain to take and when.”

But is it a performance enhancer?

“Definitely not,” Petersen says. “It’s holistic medicine but not enhancing physically. It’s just a plant. For me, it helps meditatively and holistically. It brings comfort: it helps the mind relax and not stress or think about too many things at once. So in that case, yes it helps focus to some degree. At the same time some sativas can give an anxious feeling, especially if you’re not on the move or doing something that wholly consumes that focus. There is so many different effects depending on the strain you choose. It can be good before or during abusive or strenuous activities, or to wind down from them. For me, during the physically strenuous, enduring and stressful exercises, weed helps me focus on the end goal and actually enjoy the suffering along the way. Cannabis is a part the natural environment that skiers, surfers and skaters are widely connected to as well.”

“The endogenous cannabinoid system—named for the plant that led to its discovery—is one of the most important physiologic systems involved in establishing and maintaining human health. Endocannabinoids and their receptors are found throughout the body: in the brain, organs, connective tissues, glands, and immune cells. With its complex actions in our immune system, nervous system, and virtually all of the body’s organs, the endocannabinoids are literally a bridge between body and mind.” – Dr. Bradley Alger.

For many households, the moment when the lazy stoner archetype exploded was the moment that Ross Rebagliati won the gold in the 1998 snowboarding dual slalom event in Nagano, Japan. The conversation was sparked; a stunned audience wondered if smoking a joint could be likened to getting a drug transfusion for Lance Armstrong while chairlifts, skateparks and surf breaks shook with knowing-laughter. As for Rebagliati’s controversy and the further conversation that he’d induced, the blonde haired BC boy (who even flirted with politics in 2009) still has hold of his medal today… as well as a medical marijuana branding business. To the lazy stoner, he remains an antithesis.

After the 1998 media frenzy around Rebagliati, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was founded and they had cannabinoids on their list of banned substances since the very start. But why? Was it the performance enhancing qualities – which Rebagliati has been quoted as saying that it does in fact have – or was it the legality of the substance that put it there? At that time, the science, testimonials and case studies on the issue were sparse but opinion and lobbying were not. The British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2006 published a report that mentioned some users of cannabis becoming psychotic and asked “whether the use of cannabis was consciously used for doping purposes. The answer is that this substance can only indirectly improve performance—it can have a euphoric effect, reducing anxiety and increasing the sociability of an athlete who may be particularly nervous before an important match. In this way, cannabis can be considered as a doping product that calms the mind.” But can it?

Professional ‘extreme sports’ or ‘action sports’ athletes (as such) are harder to classify and ‘what’ they are present somewhat of a paradox to those not personally involved in largely individual action sports. For example, there are professional snowboarders, skateboarders and skiers who don’t compete. How are they pro? They ride handrails in the streets of snowy towns. How does that work? How do skaters, skiers and surfers who are not competitive remain professional? People don’t get it. But the answer is, usually, with exposure. Personal style, taste and trick / spot choice is what keeps people professional while not competing. Filming video parts for companies that sponsor them, doing tricks that are stylish, new and gnarly… in other words, including a creative, unique, personal, artistic element on top of simply an athletic approach.

With recent inclusions of ‘freestyle’ skiers and snowboarders in the Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014 Olympic games halfpipe and slopestyle events, many athletes and coaches had their questions and concerns about cannabis use among participants. These are extreme sports so it’s not out of the ordinary for users to be cannabis users. So what were the distinctions made between the ‘performance enhancing’ nature of cannabis and medicinal, holistic and recreational use?

“Marijuana has never been prohibited out-of-competition,” a World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) spokesman says. “The decision to change the threshold limit of marijuana to 150 ng/ml was taken in 2013 by the Executive Committee, WADA’s ultimate policy-making body, following appropriate consideration of all information. The change to the threshold means that athletes using the substance in-competition will be detected, while the chances of detecting (non-prohibited) out of competition use are substantially reduced. The threshold can be monitored and changed at any time. The World Anti-Doping Code stipulates that a substance or method can be considered for inclusion on the WADA Prohibited List (which is reviewed every year) if it is determined that it meets two of the following three criteria: a) it has the potential to enhance sport performance b) it represents a health risk to the athletes or c) it violates the spirit of sport.”

So it was decided that athletes were not at fault if the recreational, holistic, medicinal amounts (aka ‘out-of-competition’ amounts) were found in an athlete’s system. Whereas anything over that is considered a performance enhancer, said to “decrease anxiety by increasing airflow to the lungs, acting as a bronchodilator – something that decreases resistance in the airways” and therefore ticks at least two of the three WADA prohibition boxes.    

“A couple years before we got into it, the industry kind of frowned on weed, but as we started making and releasing our videos, weed was suddenly cool and marketable to these big corporate snowboard companies! Those office losers change there mind all the time about what’s cool and what isn’t,” Dave Brocklebank, filmer for the infamous DOPE crew says. “But lucky for us timing was right and the weed was good! We even got a plug at one point for free weed from Eden Medical in Vancouver. Layne Treeter, E-man Anderson and myself were getting a half-ounce each per month as well as staff discounts.”

The DOPE crew represents a side of the snowboard industry spectrum that is decidedly anti-Olympics, anti-corporate and pro-cannabis. “The DOPE idea just came out of our lifestyle choices.” Brocklebank says.

Another crew that is slowly taking over the snowboard industry media landscape is FootyFiend, a crew whose aesthetic is never far from a weed motif or reference. “I wouldn’t call weed a performance enhancing drug,” principal filmer and producer, Jordan Macdonald says. “If you’re always smoking, it doesn’t affect you as much as someone who doesn’t smoke and then is suddenly high in a high-stakes situation. Although it could make some snowboarders worse in competition if they are used to training while baked. I am pretty sure that happened to someone I know actually. He had to stop smoking weed in hopes of getting to Sochi, and then it just got too stressful, so I don’t know if that means that it’s performance enhancing but some people need it more than others. Everyone smokes weed but action sports brings out people who are more adventurous in general, so it’s more common among those groups and the lazy stoner is truly an old stereotype. I think weed has focusing effects in extreme situations, and helps with smoothness and fluidity on the board but it also takes that edge off for some people and potentially allows them to instinctively do tricks instead of thinking too much. I know Olympic-type riders who blaze all day as long as they are not going to be drug tested immediately.”

Brad Broughton is another Whistler local who has been working with companies such as SPY, 686 and Monster, helping market the brands and teams in the area. He also works in Whistler’s premier head-shop, Two Guys With Pipes so if anyone has a finger on the pulse of why action sports and cannabis have shows symbiosis, it’s him. “I think the connection is really in all outdoor activities.” Broughton says, echoing Petersen’s holistic approach. “It’s inarguably nice to sit at the top of a mountain with your friends, burn one and take in the scenery. I feel like it’s the same with hiking and is true with many of my friends that fish. I don’t really see weed as an enhancer for high-level sports. If you are referring to the freestyle side and the artistic / filming side of snowboarding, I would say that there are a ton of people who you wouldn’t expect to use cannabis that do. It definitely helps with pain and recovery from taking slams – as many of these guys do on a regular basis – and it’s a much healthier option than any opiate or some other addictive pharmaceutical.”

But as someone who is looking out for the careers of many young riders in the industry, does he have any concerns about riders who smoke regularly and are trying to maintain professional careers? “I really don’t care if riders smoke or not,” Broughton says. “But kids need to know that it can actually hurt you if you’re a lazy burnout. So if you want to progress in this industry: get off your ass and get it done!”