A brief trip through snowboarding’s relationship with drugs

Words: Ed Leigh
Illustrations: Clara Jonas

This is in no way a definitive history of snowboarding’s relationship with drugs. How could it possibly be? Action sports have long been regarded as permissive environments where freedom of expression and creativity are championed. This attitude, together with their status as part of the late 20th century counter culture, means it’s fair to say that drug use in surfing, skateboarding and snowboarding has been as widespread as it has diverse.

“In its short history, snowboarding has winced at the tragedy, marvelled at the beauty and embraced the chaos of the entire spectrum of narcotics”

Surfing set the tone, and its experimental relationship with substances is the stuff of literary folklore. As far back as the late 1950s and early 60s, the unconventional and indulgent lifestyle of surfers who ditched the nine-to-five and headed (literally and metaphorically) to the fringes marked a challenge to America’s postwar conformism. In his biography Mr Sunset, Jeff Hackman famously recounted numerous barely survivable tales, including his own recipe for speedballs – a mix of heroin and speed wrapped in a Rizla and shoved up his ass. More cerebral was William Finnegan’s description of gliding through gigantic perfection at Honolua Bay whilst high on acid, in his glorious autobiography Barbarian Days. Meanwhile, Sean Doherty’s MP: the Life of Michael Peterson chronicles Australian surfing’s destructive heroin epidemic of the 1970s, which masked the spiral into schizophrenia of one of its most legendary talents.

Cut to the 80s and skateboarding raised the bar with a ‘fuck you’ attitude that offered an alternative to capitalist excess – and in some cases, enlightenment. But for every glorified tale of debauchery, there were at least two tragic stories of addiction and trafficking. Christian Hosoi, Andrew Reynolds, Elisa Steamer, Jeff Grosso and Gino Iannucci are just some of the biggest names in the game who – with varying degrees of success – battled meth, cocaine, booze, heroin and crack.

And then came snowboarding. More affluent than surfing or skateboarding, and with just as much down time, it has – in its short history – winced at the tragedy, marvelled at the beauty and embraced the chaos of the entire spectrum of narcotics.

What follows is a glimpse into this clandestine world – snapshots from riders who have come into contact with drugs, both legal and illegal. It’s up to you to decide whether you agree with their actions and beliefs, but there is no denying that these compelling anecdotes provide some welcome food for thought.

Cannabis – with Tyler Chorlton

I was 12 when I smoked my first real joint. It wasn’t an attraction so much as something naughty to do. My friend stole it from his dad. We smoked it and it gave us the giggles.

I remember really not liking the fact that it was mixed with tobacco, though. I’ve always hated the idea of cigarettes and tobacco, so at that young age – between probably 13 and 16 – I organised myself to grow a few little plants. I popped the seeds in some soil and got some pretty good results first try – four or five waist to chest high plants. That was it, I was stocked up for a good few years! I had a little wooden pipe and would only smoke my own, pure weed.

“I think professional snowboarding and weed work well together. It gives my riding flow”

I fell in love with the smell; the sickly stench of the bud and all the different flavours when you’re smoking it. Then obviously there’s the high. Weed has always been a de-stresser for me, it’s helped me to accept things and move on. It definitely didn’t help me study, though; it made me lazy. I wouldn’t recommend starting that young.

If you smoke weed then you’re burning it and the psychotropic effects are much greater. [These days] I use a dry herb vape instead, which is a micro-oven that heats your weed to a temperature warm enough to release the medicinal elements without burning it. I’ve never experienced any kind of whitey or spin out with this method. It’s a lot more balanced, a lot more harmonious than a joint.

I think professional snowboarding and weed work well together. Snowboarding at that level can be a stressful game because you’re battling [to learn] these tricks and it’s very easy to get down on yourself. Once you’re a bit baked, all of the doubts and self criticism melt away. I also find it gives my riding flow. It’s like a hypnotised or flow state where you let your subconscious take over. I get a little more loose, a little more creative, so I’ll hit the jump again and try out new things or things I hadn’t thought of before. The elbow carving stuff would never have come about if I wasn’t such a stoner.

You also have a lot of downtime as a professional snowboarder, especially if you’re riding backcountry. Imagine three weeks in Alaska with no riding – you’re going to be a lot happier if you’ve got weed! So I think it compliments snowboarding on many levels, at least it does for me.

There’s definitely a higher number of weed smokers in professional snowboarding than you would find in normal society. I think it goes hand in hand, because with weed you can get super baked at night and then the next day you’re fine to go riding – but with alcohol, if you get wasted you’re not likely to ride very well (or at all) the next day. The thing with alcohol is that it lowers your perception of speed and distance, which is why drinking and driving is so dangerous. With weed you don’t get that; if anything it does the opposite – you can slow things down and get more creative.

On alcohol I don’t like how I feel. I don’t like the thoughts that enter my mind, I don’t like how I act, and I don’t like how people act around me. [Again], weed is the opposite. I like how I feel, I like how I think, and I like how other people around me who are on it think. We can get into deep conversations. I call it the harmoniser. Look at the state of the world and all the wars going on; I honestly believe that if we replaced alcohol with weed we’d achieve world peace in less than a week.

I’ve been growing weed for the last eight years and, even if I do say so myself, I’ve been doing rather a good job. Not massive quantities, but it’s exceptional quality. There are 500+ molecules in weed that can have different effects; CBD and THC are just two of those. I try to cultivate two strains when I’m growing, one more of a day-friendly strain that doesn’t make you too sleepy and doesn’t get too trippy, and then another strain which is better for the evening and winding down, that makes you zone out and get sleepy. It’s a passion for me. Most people think of me as a snowboarder, but I put just as much, if not more, into my weed. It’s a hidden side of me that people don’t see.

There are downsides to it. I’m OK with them because it’s been a part of my life for so long, but it can definitely make people too lazy. The main thing to understand is that weed will amplify whatever you’re feeling. If you’re thinking about trying it, research it. You’ve got the internet, use it.

Psychedelics – with Kareem El Rafie

The first time I had mushrooms was with Jake Blauvelt in Mammoth. I was 21 years old. We were at a house party with some other riders; we took them and went for a long walk. It’s impossible for me to overstate how important that experience was for me; it’s hard to imagine how my life would have turned out – or even who I would be – if I hadn’t taken them. Mushrooms have made me more creative, they have allowed me to feel more empathy, and they have given me a [stronger] connection to nature.

It really did expand my mind. If your world before psychedelics was the size of a coin and that was all you could see, suddenly afterwards your world is out here – the size of a football. You can see so many different perspectives [and] think in a much broader spectrum, considering so many more aspects.

“Experimenting with psychedelics has given me a deeper connection to snowboarding”

Up until that point I’d only been in the mountains to snowboard and do tricks, but after that it changed. I started looking up and really appreciating the environment I was in: the trees, the mountains, just being out there. It would never have occurred to me to go on a hike before that, but now I love to go for a walk through the mountains and just absorb things. I was so focused on [doing] tricks, but experimenting with psychedelics has given me a deeper connection to snowboarding.

I love riding on mushrooms. It makes you feel like you were born with a snowboard under your feet. I call it ‘soulboarding’ because the connection is so strong. I don’t know if I just feel like I’m riding better or if I’m actually riding better, but the sensation is way more intense; closer, more real. It amplifies all your senses, especially in powder – imagine amplifying that sensation! It also makes me more sendy. I feel like, ‘I know I can do this’ and I do it. I [think] my snowboarding improves; I feel my snowboard more.

It’s important to say that these days I’m not riding at a professional level, trying to send myself off some sketchy setup like a garage building into a reverse quarter pipe where I might die. I wouldn’t want to do mushrooms if I was doing super gnarly stuff.

Dosing is very important, [too]. If you take too many mushrooms you might not be riding that fast. It’s about finding the right amount to get inspired, because on a shitty day it can make snowboarding so much more fun; you appreciate the small things.

In Sweden mushrooms are very illegal. In other countries they’re becoming more widely accepted. I spend large parts of my winter in North America and that means that out of a hundred days a year on snow I can ride maybe ten or twenty days on mushrooms. I like taking them when I’m out sledding for a day, when you have cool terrain or slushy conditions. I wouldn’t take them just to go and ride my local hill for an hour.

I had the realisation from the very beginning that mushrooms are like medicine. I treat them [as] a blessing. You can’t compare them to cocaine or ecstasy or other ego boosting substances. Mushrooms are the opposite – they break down your ego. It’s a humbling experience that wakes you up to your surroundings and offers epiphanies. If you go to a festival and do party drugs like ecstasy all weekend, you’re going to be empty inside and feel like shit for a week with the come down. The day after a big mushroom trip you feel better than you did the day before. You gain perspective on problems that have felt difficult to solve – you either find a solution or realise, ‘Hey, you know what, that isn’t going to ruin my life. I’m alive, I have good health, I have family.’ It makes you appreciate the small things and not put too much energy into [stuff] you can’t change or that are dragging you down.

Caffeine – with Ed Leigh

Caffeine is the world’s favourite drug. More than 90 percent of the earth’s population consume it daily. In fact it’s so ubiquitous that we even give it to children. As Michael Pollan – the David Attenborough of drugs – points out in his latest book, How Coffee and Tea Created the Modern World, “Constant personal caffeination has simply become baseline human consciousness.”

In short, caffeine is everywhere – and snowboarding is no exception. So why have I bothered to include it in this article? It’s not because snowboarders consume noticeably more of it. No, it’s because we have been used to market it and, therefore, have benefited directly from its huge growth in popularity. It’s impossible to deny the phenomenal amount of money that has poured into action sports from caffeinated energy drink companies over the last two decades. It has turbo charged both the industry and the speed of progression.

“A mildly sinister fairy godmother”

The biggest of the energy drinks was born in 1976 when the Thai pharmacist Chaleo Yoovidhya created a drink called Krating Daeng. During a trip to Thailand in the early 80s, an Austrian toothpaste salesman named Dietrich Mateschitz found it cured his jet lag and quickly struck a deal which saw Yoovidhya retain a controlling stake in the business while Mateschitz gained the distribution rights to every continent except Asia. By 1987 he had set up Red Bull and changed the recipe. The updated formula featured less sugar, half the amount of taurine and caffeine, and was carbonated so that it could be used as a mixer with alcohol. The master stroke, though, was his marketing strategy.

Mateschitz instinctively understood that if he promoted his concoction as a party drink he would draw the attention of governments, who were in the midst of legislating against big tobacco. Instead, he decided to commit 50 percent of his working profits to promoting Red Bull as an activator – a drink that ‘gives you wings’ and enables you to go out and live your best life. To this end he started investing in action sports.

I can clearly remember seeing my first Red Bull snowboarding helmet. It was on the head of Czech ripper Martin Cernik at the 1997 Board X event in London. It seemed kooky at the time because there were so many hard boot racers who had them. Indeed, Red Bull had limited success enticing big names to sign in those early years, but as the business grew, so did the size of their contract offers. A great way to measure this is to contrast the Arctic Challenge in the year 2000 with the US Open in 2010. Of the 25 best riders in the world who were invited to compete at Terje Haakonsen’s event, not one of them had an energy drink sponsor. At Stratton 10 years later, there was a minimum of one energy drink helmet on every podium, including Jamie Anderson and Iouri Podlatchikov on Monster, Seb Toots and Louis Vito on Red Bull, and – even more tellingly – a 13-year-old Kyle Mack already in Rockstar colours on the top step of the Junior Jam.

The enormous growth in the market during that decade saw rival drinks brands committing to the same marketing strategy as Red Bull, heralding a golden age for action sports. Red Bull unleashed a war chest of a budget to ensure Monster and Rock Star’s spending wouldn’t eclipse their own. They battled to sign the world’s best athletes and funded their wildest dreams – including Shaun White’s private halfpipe and Travis Rice’s epic movie trilogy (at just over $3M, The Fourth Phase is still the most expensive snowboard movie ever made). In the process, they created content that the rest of us could all drool over. Meanwhile, Monster had arguably just as much success via an infinitely cheaper approach when they began supporting Stale Sandbech and Gimbal God’s groundbreaking edits.

But it isn’t just about the athletes and progression. These brands have funded events and resorts, set up TV channels, built sports facilities around the world and, in Red Bull’s case, sent a man into space – all in the name of selling massively caffeinated fizzy drinks. They completely reinvented the marketing wheel. For instance, the space adventure cost 50 million dollars and got more than 50 million live viewers; that’s more eyeballs than the Super Bowl halftime show, during which advertisers won’t get change from 150 million dollars… And here lies the key point: whether you like it or not, the money which energy drinks companies have poured into action sports has propelled them into the mainstream.

In 2021 Red Bull sold just shy of 10 billion cans; Monster sold 5 billion. Red Bull alone was estimated to have spent close to 2 billion dollars on marketing. The truth is, the scale of the energy drinks business has outgrown action sports. Today, the world’s biggest ad agencies have got their hooks into those budgets and you’ll see everyone from Neymar to E-Sport superstar Ninja repping an energy drink. Nevertheless, there’s still a Wolf of Wall Street sized pile of cash available for snowboarding.

Looking back on this whole period, it’s fair to say energy drinks have acted as a kind of mildly sinister fairy godmother for action sports. They’ve made our wildest dreams come true… but it comes at a price. Huge multi-nationals need squeaky clean images from the athletes they promote, and so snowboarding has been to corporate finishing school. As Chris Moran opines on p.xx, our ‘athletes’ are now perfectly media trained, box fresh ambassadors who are ready to drive sales for mainstream audiences.

Cocaine – Anonymous

I moved down to South West France in the spring of 2001. I’d just signed my first professional snowboarding contract and couldn’t have been more stoked. I was living just behind the dunes at Cul Nul, the legendary surf break north of Hossegor, and in late May the police closed the beaches. At first we didn’t know why. There was a gendarme on the path, and another on the next path, and the next… There were cops and helicopters everywhere. At first we thought it was a dead body; then we started hearing that cocaine had washed up on the beach.

May is that time of year when it’s often too big and wild to surf, so we weren’t too bothered. Eventually [the weather] cleared. We knew the surf was going to be good so I checked Cul Nul and there were no cops. It was barely light and still massive, so I sat down to watch a few sets and see if there were any gaps in the swell. A fisherman was just in front of me on the shore, and there was debris and rubble everywhere because at that time of year they don’t clean the beach.

“I had found a kilogram of super high grade, uncut, pure cocaine”

I was looking at all this mess when it occurred to me, “Shit! Maybe I should go for a walk and have a look around?” and then, “Nah, there’s been cops everywhere.” This whole thought process was still going through my head and then, right in front of me – literally not even two metres away – is this thing sticking up out of the sand like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. A big, square, black block.

The fisherman is 10 metres away on the other side of a sand pool. I stand up, walk over to it, pick it up – and as I do the fisherman turns and looks at me. I hold it tight to my body with my board in front of me. He says, “Bonjour”, I say “Bonjour”, and then he turns back to the sea. I shove it down the front of my wetsuit and run back to the house. I cut it open and the smell was so intense. I’d had cocaine [before] but never noticed the smell – it was wild. It was so strong that I didn’t want it in the house. I went outside and stashed it, and that’s when it started to hit me what I had and what the implications were. I had found a kilogram of super high grade, uncut, pure cocaine. I was shitting it. I didn’t tell anyone for a week; then I decided I needed to tell at least one person because I needed advice, so I spoke to a friend who knew about drugs.

“What do you want me to do?” he said. “I don’t know anyone who can afford to buy that amount of drugs. The only people who can afford that are gangsters.”

I considered handing it in; I didn’t know if I wanted the burden. I definitely didn’t want to go to jail. Everything was going so well for me with snowboarding that I didn’t want to ruin it. I took a long time over the decision, but in the end I took 50 grams and buried the rest.

It turned out loads of people had found it. Two 15-year-olds were arrested selling some at the train station on their BMX’s. Another guy got busted with a block. There were news stories up and down the coast; South West France was awash with this coke. So it was easy and plausible for me to tell people that I’d met a guy who’d found it, and that was my story.

I started doing some research and found out that pure cocaine of this quality is usually cut at least three times, so in terms of street weight I had three kilos of cocaine. I had to cut it because otherwise it would just put you to the wall – you couldn’t speak and you’d empty your bowels; it just wasn’t fun.

The following summer things had cooled off and I was more relaxed. I told two friends and we started partying with it more. We had a plate in the top of the house where we kept small amounts. There was a spoon on the plate, and a friend started using the spoon to stir his coffee when he was hungover. I watched him and it seemed to work, so I tried it out and then it became a habit. Some mornings it was too much, but most of the time we would surf like demons. We would surf for five, six, sometimes eight hours at a time and the penny dropped; I can use this for snowboarding! I would never snort it, I would rub it into my gums and go for a run. I started running up and down the beach at Hossegor for two hours in deep heavy sand whenever it was flat. When I went back up to the mountains that winter my legs were so strong. That’s when my professional snowboarding really took off because I was turbo strong. In that sense, yes I used it as a performance drug. I can’t lie, I was also using it to party, but it was probably equal. It got to the point where, if we were hungover, we’d say, “Let’s have a paracetamol,” and that meant get the spoon out and stir it into the coffee.

I’m very lucky that I’m a disciplined person. A lot of people can’t have a gram of cocaine in their pocket because they’ll just do it. I’ve had cocaine sitting on a shelf for six months and haven’t touched it. It was hard work to be that disciplined, but having a professional snowboard career at that time made it easier, because the coke was the one thing that could destroy it and I wasn’t going to let that happen.

Did it make me a better snowboarder? The key was knowing how to dose it. I stuck to rubbing it on my gums. It was almost micro dosing, controlling it so that you could set a level where you could still rely on your senses and be aware of avalanches and mountain safety. I worked out that adrenaline kills intuition, and the cocaine would lift adrenaline levels, so in that respect it’s a recipe for disaster. If I ever felt like I’d had coke, that was a warning sign that I’d had too much and needed to wind it in.

I saw so many people who didn’t have that discipline. The huge amount of cocaine that flooded Hossegor during that time was a big factor in taking down the ASP and the old WCT in surfing; there was so much excess and debauchery. I could give you a huge list of names – in fact Kelly [Slater] is one of the few people at that time that I didn’t see on the gear. I watched what happened in surfing and didn’t want to see it happen in snowboarding, so I made sure very little of it got to the mountains.

I managed a high end bar in London one summer four years after I first found it, and it was disgusting. I saw the coke for what it was… It’s beyond money, it’s beyond anything; it’s such a high level of power you’re wielding when you have it in your pocket. I was more relaxed about who I told by this stage, and when a group of supermodels turned up I shared it round and told the story, so I was the star of the night. But even with that set, you would always feel them latching on to you. They introduced me to one of the biggest designers in the world and he was exactly the same. I remember thinking, “Wow, no one is above this; no one is immune.” In that period I saw the worst of humanity and that stuck with me. To this day I don’t think that cocaine is bad, it’s the humans that ruin it.

In the end it lasted five years. I remember very clearly feeling happy and relieved when it was gone. But I didn’t run for a long time.

Prescription Drugs (Ritalin & Adderall) – with Travis Rice

As a kid I had too much energy to sit through a whole school day. I wasn’t a bad child, but small misdemeanours started to accumulate. My parents, like any parents trying to find a solution […] took me to a doctor who diagnosed me with ADHD and prescribed Ritalin.

I remember the first time I took it, I was getting a ride to school with my neighbours and I had this overwhelming blissed out feeling in the back of the minivan. It was the first time in my life I had ever felt a drug. I thought, “Oh my god! This is what I’m supposed to take everyday? This is fricking awesome!” I was so high – it’s amazing how strong that drug is for a child.

“There is no question in my mind that if I’d stayed on Ritalin, snowboarding wouldn’t have happened for me”

It affects different people differently, I’ve never tried speed but that’s what people describe the sensation as – similar to speed, so essentially amphetamines. For me I would be taking deep breaths, there would be a hint of a cold sweat and you’re super into your work, or you have these very deep conversations. It gives you a concentrated single point focus, like your homework: “Yep, I’m doing that,” and you just get it done.

In the weeks that followed I was way more calm. It was easier to sit through classes and stay focused. The drug was impressive in its ability to do that, but one of the things I started to notice was that I was struggling to play sports. I loved to snowboard, I loved to play hockey, but my drive was falling off. I couldn’t find that fifth gear, that flow state, whatever you want to call it with sports.

In terms of performance enhancing, I can imagine you could use it cognitively. Like, if I ever tried to picture myself going into law, then I probably couldn’t do it without relying on a Ritalin-like drug because I’m not wired that way. But I can never imagine it being used to gain a physical advantage because in my experience it calmed me down [but] I lost my extra drive to push my limits physically.

Both Ritalin and Adderall get down-played quite a bit, but they are really strong pharmaceuticals. I’ve got friends who’ve tried Ritalin and who have also had cocaine, and they’ve told me that it’s pretty much the same shit! I was too young to understand as an early teen, but later in life, as my communication skills improved, I realised that taking Ritalin massively reduced my capacity for empathy. I lost empathy for others on that drug. I’m naturally an extrovert, but it made me more introverted, and as I became singularly focused on tasks I didn’t really care about other people or what was going on. Those social components melted away as I sat there in my happy little dosed world, getting my schoolwork done.

There is no question in my mind that if I’d stayed on Ritalin for another year or two, snowboarding wouldn’t have happened for me. ADHD is my superpower, and the beauty of it for me is that I thrive when I have a multitude of stimulations happening at the same time. I’ve always really enjoyed things that pull me into the present – into the moment – because there’s lots of things happening. Snowboarding is a great example because there’s a lot going on when you’re riding; you’re constantly making decisions and calculations that rely on the skills you’ve acquired and your experience. Anything that requires hands-on learning is great, because it usually involves multiple things happening. The challenge for someone with ADD or ADHD is when you have a narrow stream of information that you’re supposed to be able to ingest and process, because for me it’s difficult, it’s slow, it’s agitating. It’s easy to lose focus. But when you have hands-on learning, that’s when ADHD is a gift.

This article is the start of a series of stories exploring drugs in snowboarding.


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