Originally appeared in the Dec. 2016 issue of SNOWBOARDER Magazine.
words: Cody Liska
It probably started with surfing and then drifted its way into skateboarding. Tony Alva, Jay Adams. Those guys. Outcasts. Potheads. But not the half-baked, squinty-eyed kind lying around in sweatpants, scratching their nuts. Or the dreadlocked hippies whose only prerogative is where their next eighth is coming from. More like dirtbags who typified a revolutionary sport and the style that went along with it.
The relationship between skate culture and weed culture has been around "since the beginning," TransWorld Skateboarding Online Editor Blair Alley says. "Watch the Dogtown documentary. The first street skaters were all surfers. They all smoked weed and partied."
A decade or so later, it drifted its way into snowboarding. It was an easy match–two budding countercultures fighting to exist. "In the beginning, snowboarders weren't allowed to go on the mountain," Ross Rebagliati says. "So we banded together and we lobbied and we got the sport accepted and we eventually got into the Olympics. So, there's definitely a sense of community there and, for some reason, the whole philosophy of snowboarding and cannabis have been very synonymous with each other."
You can't really talk about the relationship between weed culture and snowboard culture without bringing up Ross. He's the guy who, back in 1998, won an Olympic gold medal in Giant Slalom, only to have it taken away because, after he submitted to a piss test, THC was found in his system. The amount was negligible. On The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Ross said it was a billionth of a gram. He was eventually given his medal back after the Court for Arbitration of Sport ruled that the International Olympic Committee didn't have an agreement with the International Ski Federation about the use of marijuana. What that meant was marijuana wasn't on the list of banned substances. Since then, the World Anti-Doping Agency has increased the threshold from 15 nanograms per milliliter to 150 ng/mL. "After me, they increased it," Ross says. "They raised it like 1,000 percent higher."
Corporations run the world. That's one way to look at it. Why else are opioids legal while marijuana is still largely illegal? "Big Pharma probably wants to keep weed on the down low because you can pretty much use weed for every single thing they make a pill for," Ross says. "Weed is the safest drug on earth…The national soccer team in Saudi Arabia is on CBD for anti-inflammatory." And that's where his head's been at since the Nagano Olympics–how can a snowboarder help curb the prohibition of marijuana? His answer: by opening up a dispensary and educating the public. Using his Olympic distinction as a marketing tool, Ross and his business partner, Patrick Smyth, opened Ross' Gold in Kelowna, British Columbia in 2014.
Same goes for Marc Frank Montoya. Except his dispensary, Sofa King Medicinal, is in Colorado. So, his story goes a little differently than Ross's. First off, Marc doesn't smoke weed. Never really has. Maybe twice a year if he's with some close friends. But even then, he's not really comfortable with it. "At first, I'm like laughing on the floor, especially if I'm hanging out with Jay Nelson or Kurt Wastell," he laughs. "But then, after forty-five minutes, I realize how stupid I'm looking. And then I get all paranoid and can't talk for the next two hours."
So, how'd he end up working the retail end of things? It started ten years ago, when he became interested in wellness and watching what he puts into his body. "An ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure," he says. "I started eating salads and taking supplements and I felt like I was 18. I was a pro snowboarder until I was 39. It prolonged my career by like 8, 9 years." All of this–the superfoods, the salads, the supplements, the weed–came after Marc watched his grandparents get caught in the polypharmaceutical system. "They died early and they died broke because the pharmaceutical companies pulled them into their sickness-care system–it's not a healthcare system, it's a sickness-care system. [Big pharma] loves for you to be sick and eat like shit and then they give their drugs to you and address the signs and symptoms of aging and malnutrition and all of that stuff… The number one reason for bankruptcy [in the United States] are medical bills because people aren't paying attention until something bad happens."
For Marc, this is a crusade and weed is the perfect conduit to talk about living a healthy lifestyle. "I pull them in with weed, then I show them what wellness is really all about. A disease, most of the time, is a dis-ease we get from long-term malnutrition. Your body is not at ease and the only thing that will put it at ease is when you give it the right stuff it needs to heal itself. And that only comes from natural stuff. Weed is just the catalyst to get people educated on the rest of it."
There's the activist and then there's the recreationalist. That's the difference between someone like Marc and Gus Engle. Gus hasn't passed the dutchie for about five years, but when he did, he passed tough. So tough he lost two years of his life. That's what his wife Estée Preda says. When he immigrated to Canada last year, he had to recount the last ten years of his life, month by month. And he couldn't remember most of what happened between 2006 and 2008. Sure, he has the occasional glimpse of what those years were like. For instance, he knows he was in Reno at the time; he knows he was sleeping on couches. Or was it floors? It had to be one of those because he distinctly remembers shitty coffee tables and Jimmy Johns' wrappers. "I was so stoned, man," he laughs.
The first time Gus smoked weed while he was snowboarding was with Matt Edgars. They were at Mt. Baker, on Granny's Ridge, hitting a jump. Edgars got a couple shots, but Gus never got around to hitting the jump. He was too busy staring at it. When he was done staring, it was late and they had to ride down in the dark. On the way down, Gus kept thinking about how Mike Page hit that grappling wire at Blackcomb back in 2001. How he'd been riding in the dark, just like Gus was now, and it caught him right at the knees. Other than that paranoid thought, it was a magical experience.
"That was when I first really started smoking pot," he says. "I was living in my van and I parked it in Lucas Debari's driveway in Bellingham. And then I started smoking with [Lucas] and his roommate, Aiden. It was so fun."
But buying weed sucks, right? Meeting some super senior in a parking lot for a baggie of schwag isn't the coolest experience. Or, if you're lucky, you might know some longhaired shut-in who grows. Either way, you never really know what you're going to get. "It's like going to the liquor store and saying, 'I'll take alcohol,'" Gus says, "and then they give you whatever. It could be tequila or it could be rose wine." At the end of the day, it's a rite of passage. Like when you were in high school and you gave some bum $20 to buy you a half-rack of Busch Light and he came back with a sixer of Natty Ice. It's disappointing but, in hindsight, necessary to your identity.
"If pot could talk," Gus says, "it would be the language of snowboarding and surfing and skateboarding. I feel like the way I speak and act is super influenced by weed culture because it's so deeply engrained in snowboard culture. People talking like, 'Duuude, two feet of pow today,'" he says with a high-pitched, stoney inflection. "Even the snowboarders who aren't high are around the snowboarders who are and then they become influenced by it."
Alexa McCarty was influenced by it. By weed and by snowboarding. Without one, she wouldn't be doing the other. Case in point, she's been trimming to subsidize her winter finances since 2010. Ever since she moved to Salt Lake City. "That's literally how I'm able to snowboard," she says. "And I just enjoy the act of smoking it as well." She used to only smoke out of bongs. Then a friend introduced her to moles, a tobacco and weed mix smoked out of a bong. "That was pretty much my shit forever. And then a summer or two ago, another friend told me I was too old to be smoking moles. Now I just smoke spliffs like a normal, respectable weed-smoking adult," she laughs.
Every grow operation is different. Sometimes you get paid by the pound. So, the more you trim, the more you get paid. Indoor ops can be above ground greenhouses with darkened windows or a basement with fluorescent grow lights. Outdoor ops can look like a Christmas tree farm with rows of plants. And not every op is cush. It can be like camping in the mud or a scene from Spring Breakers. "Sometimes they're super professional and sometimes it's just a party," Alexa says. "I've been to really fun ops where we're just shooting guns and riding dirtbikes and doing keg stands on mountaintops…I've pretty much just slept in tents every time."
Part way through the interview, Alexa stops and says, "I feel like such a Juggalo talking about this." And then she continues answering a question. What was this one about again? Oh, yea, if she smokes and snowboards. "If I was to be hitting handrails and trying to die, I'd prefer to not be smoking. But if I'm just casual park boarding or it's a powder day or anything that's not consequential, then hell yea. It's like a necessity in those situations, I would say. It makes everything better. It makes food better. It makes sex better. So, of course it makes snowboarding better."
Weed is so mainstream now though. Grandmas are getting high. Disney stars are sucking joints back. I mean, even reporters on local news channels are pledging their allegiance to the sticky icky. But, wasn't that the whole point? For it to be accepted?
"When I was working at KTVA in Alaska, I flew to Colorado and Washington and looked into weed culture there [so I could] report to Alaskans what our state would look like if we legalized marijuana," Charlo Greene says. "And that's where I met people that were literally depending on it to save their lives or to maintain quality of life. And that was eye opening to me."
On September 22, 2014, Charlo famously quit her job as a reporter after covering a story on the Alaska Cannabis Club, a pro-marijuana organization she owns. During the live broadcast she said, "Everything you've heard is why I, the actual owner of the Alaska Cannabis Club, will be dedicating all of my energy toward fighting for freedom and fairness, which begins with legalizing marijuana here in Alaska. And as for this job, well, not that I have a choice, but fuck it, I quit." Millions of YouTube views and a media frenzy later and "Fuck it, I quit" was trending. Today, she's facing 54 years in prison because of her involvement in the early stages of legalized recreational weed in Alaska. "It has opened up a lot of peoples' eyes to the reality of marijuana prohibition," she says. "And this is happening in a state where it's legal."
Charlo believes that the biggest misconception about weed is that it's harmful. That it doesn't have any medical benefits and that everyone who smokes it is a delinquent. "Every study ever done has shown that it's not harmful and that it's extremely beneficial for a wide range of illnesses," she says. She talks about how marijuana affects the endocannabinoid system, a group of receptors found in the brain that affect memory, appetite, energy, sleep and stress, among other things. "It brings your body into balance, back into homeostasis. So, of course I believe in the healing power of marijuana… People that oppose the legalization of weed are at risk of losing something that goes with a change in the status quo. You just have to look at who those people are–it's people and industries protecting their own private interests. It's the healthcare industry, it's the pharmaceutical industry, it's the prison industry. I don't think anyone can look at [those industries] and believe that they have the people's best interest at heart. Because there's more money in treating sick people than there is in healing them."
Four years before Charlo became a household name and less than a mile down the road from the Alaska Cannabis Club, a different story was brewing. A guy by the name of Will Ingram had just walked into AK's Boardroom for the first time and had no idea that his passion for snowboarding and skateboarding would eventually lead him to a career in cannabis. He had no idea that, at that moment, in that shop, opportunity and tragedy lay ahead. At 25, he just wanted to be involved in the snow and skate industry. Among the boards, the gear and the culture. So, he asked the owner of the shop, Zak Kaercher, if he was hiring. He was. Or maybe he wasn't. Maybe he just appreciated Will's tenacity. Either way, Will got a job.
Will worked his ass off, learned about gear and bullshitted with customers, knowing that an opportunity like this doesn't come around often–after all, it wasn't long ago he was stuck behind a desk, working a bank job he didn't give a shit about. And then, in June of 2010, Zak was being pulled behind a pick-up truck on his skateboard when he lost control, hit his head on the pavement and began convulsing. By the time the ambulance brought him to the hospital and doctors were able to diagnose him, he was clinically brain-dead. He was kept on life support for the next couple days, long enough so that his organs could be donated.
After Zak died, Will and the rest of the Boardroom crew were left with two options: let the shop die or find a way to keep it alive. They chose the latter. And so for six more years they stayed afloat, even profiting at times. However, the 2013 to 2015 seasons became deathblows. It wasn't snowing like it used to, so people weren't spending money. Then, in April of this year, just when Will was thinking about closing up shop, he got a call from two investors about opening up one of Alaska's first marijuana dispensary in the Boardroom's location. There are a lot of regulations surrounding where marijuana can be grown and where it can be sold. The Boardroom–soon to be Alaska Fireweed–by sheer luck or divine intervention, happens to be in the Goldilocks Zone. Just far enough away from the Holy Family Cathedral on 6th Avenue on one end and Peratrovich Park down the road on the other end.
"If [Zak] were around today and this was happening, he'd be really happy to see where the shop is going, even though the snowboard shop dream didn't pan out," Will says. "That dude loved to ride and he smoked more than I've ever seen anybody smoke. So, I've always thought that he, in some way, shape or form, had something to do with this."
When you get right down to it, the conversation about weed isn't really about weed at all. It's a conversation of leases and luck and chances and opportunity. It can be a sad story or it can be a funny story. It can also be a hopeful story. Because, at its core, it's about people, how they interact with the world and how they cope with it. It's a relationship built upon so many vignettes told by likeminded people, regardless of what end of the spectrum they belong to.
"Everyone in the senate should just smoke weed or do acid, something to shake up their reality," Gus says. "Because when you live in a world that is so insulated, you become so ensconced that you don't even realize there are other ways of experiencing life. I think that's a big symptom of a lot of our problems, people having a very narrow life experience."