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The first cough is a sign. The second is a dead giveaway. Then the laughing starts, big bellyfuls of guffaw, and considering one of the most famous stoners in the world is on the other end of the phone from which all the noise emanates, only one question seems appropriate.
Dude, are you getting high right now?
"We're sampling," says Ross Rebagliati, the Canadian snowboarder you last met in 1998 when he was winning Olympic gold for his shredding prowess, then losing it because his drug test came back positive for marijuana, then getting it back on appeal because weed wasn't actually on the Olympics' banned-substance list. While Rebagliati swore it came only from secondhand smoke, a story by which he sticks today, the positive test married him to ganja in the public's eye. And 16 years later, with his sport primed to capture the world's attention at the Sochi Games, Olympic snowboarding's first champion likewise is ready for his greatest challenge yet.
Ross Rebagliati wants to be the biggest medical-marijuana dealer in Canada. If that means sparking up some Cotton Candy ("It's a new strain. I love it.") or Super Lemon Haze ("It smells like lemon. What more could you ask for?") on a Thursday afternoon, so be it. Rebagliati spits at the maxim not to get high on your own supply.
"We're doing some research and development to get to know what we're selling," he says from a home in Whistler, British Columbia, that serves as headquarters for Ross' Gold, the brand Rebagliati is building from seed to bud in preparation for Canada's massive medical-marijuana overhaul on April 1. The controversial privatized system planned by Health Canada will empower licensed distributors to provide the entire country with marijuana delivered by mail. Critics argue that with a long, arduous licensing process yielding just five distributors thus far – Ross' Gold is not yet one of them, though Rebagliati says "it's not a matter of if, it's when" – and the law taking away patients' inability to grow marijuana themselves, prices could spike and waylay more than 40,000 people who rely on medical cannabis.
Rather than let such concerns harsh his mellow, Rebagliati is focusing on how to make Ross' Gold a viable and legitimate option for new patients. He partnered with a distribution service working on import and export licenses, growers who will provide the product and an e-commerce and payment hub in Ontario that links the front and back ends.
Rebagliati plans to sell four levels of weed, categorized by THC levels: Platinum, Gold, Silver and Bronze, naturally, rotating different strains depending on the week and supply.
"Some of this stuff is like caviar," he says. "They roll it in extracts. They dust it in the crystal on top. And you end up with a gram of weed that's $100."
Something of a connoisseur, Rebagliati, now 42 and equipped with a prescription to help treat years of aches from snowboarding falls, figured Canada's new edict as well as the United States' relaxation of marijuana laws gave him entrée into an industry that for years had begged him to cash in on his celebrity. Long before Michael Phelps got caught with a bong, Rebagliati was the face of Olympic marijuana, playing into pretty much every stereotype possible about snowboarders. At the time, the sport's inclusion in the Olympics troubled the stodgy codgers who run the IOC enough. For Rebagliati to go on a practical perp walk through a crush of media in Nagano trying to explain his positive test left him prone to jokes for years.
Now he wants to own that image. He ran unsuccessfully for political office but captured the love of the pro-pot crowd. His ex-wife tried to drag him through the mud in ugly divorce proceedings by bringing up his marijuana use. Rebagliati's latest endeavor allows him to partake of some indica, savor some sativa and make money at the same time, and he figures the years of laughter will have been worth it.
"It took me a while to come to terms with what happened," he says. "Creating Ross' Gold is part of that. It's being honest with myself and who I am and what my background is and that I'm proud of it."
Finding success matters to Rebagliati, and it's an ethos that stretches to '98. Winning gold in snowboarding slalom – a sport that since has taken a backseat to halfpipe and the newest entry into this year's Olympics, slopestyle – was important enough, Rebagliati says, that in the lead-up to Nagano he stopped smoking, even as friends blazed around him nightly. Less than three months after the '98 Games, the IOC banned marijuana, a direct response to the trace amounts found in one snowboarder's urine sample. With the marijuana revolution surging on, the IOC remains a drug-testing ninny, which is a shame to Rebagliati, because he sees some potentially great customers in the Olympic movement.
"I'd like to get some Olympians using Ross' Gold," he says. "I think it would help a lot in their training. There's no hangovers. There's no calories. You get to bed early and wake up early. These are things that help you train."
Not the most convincing argument in the world, but, hey, it's not like the stuff he's selling needs some sort of a marketing push. Rebagliati says he cross-country skied almost 10 miles for charity despite – or perhaps because of – his daily use. If Rebagliati's product is as good as he claims, he may end up more famous for this gold than his first one, which he houses in the same sort of place others might stick a sack of Platinum.
"It's in a drawer," Rebagliati says. "The one with the broken tape measure, 10 pairs of sunglasses and all sorts of other junk."
He laughs. Someone in the background coughs again. Maybe it's a signal. Or just a big bong rip. Either way, Rebagliati bids adieu. R&D beckons. It's high time to go back to work.