The US Banned This Canadian Gold Medalist for Smoking Pot
Ross Rebagliati is now allowed back stateside after years of being barred.
Naturally, Ross Rebagliati now owns a medical cannabis company. Photo courtesy of Ross' Gold
Ross Rebagliati was, for a brief time, one of the more famous Canadians in the world. After winning a gold medal in men's snowboarding at the 1998 Winter Olympics, he went through a tumultuous series of events when trace amounts of THC were discovered in his system following his win.
"The day before I was on Jay Leno, I was in jail in Japan," Rebagliati told VICE. "I won, then I spent about three days losing my medal, fighting for it back, going to jail, and getting out of jail, getting my medal back. Then literally the next day I flew to Los Angeles to do The Tonight Show."
While on the show, Rebagliati admitted to using cannabis in the past. He then returned to the notorious party-hard ski town Whistler for a massive homecoming with thousands of people. A few years later, he would be turned away while trying to enter the US for the Salt Lake City Olympics—only able to make it to the Games after a special letter was sent to the White House.
Bans like the one Rebagliati has dealt with for years are a rising issue with recreational weed set to be legal in Canada by July 2018 and no sign of the US considering similar policy at a federal level in the near future. Just this week, though, a Canadian official told people that they should "be honest and tell the truth" when asked by the US border if they've smoked weed. One lawyer we spoke to, though, said you might not want to exactly follow that advice.
After 9/11, Rebagliati was put on the no-fly list. To this day, he's only been able to enter the States on a waiver due to his known prior cannabis use. He just acquired a new waiver after years of being barred, so VICE reached out to Rebagliati to interview him about how being banned from the States has affected his life.
VICE: How did being on the no-fly list affect your life and career?
Ross Rebagliati: That's kind of when it started. I spent the next seven or eight years not going, then I ended up getting married to a girl from the US. With help from her father, I was able to get a waiver. When that expired, I don't know what happened, but then I wasn't allowed to come back in again or get another waiver.
It was just a string of hurdles and red tape after the Olympics because of the association I had to cannabis in the media—not that I had a record or anything.
I tried to go down approximately five years ago with my baby daughter at the time to go to my mom's house in Palm Springs, California. I had my new wife, had the baby, the dog was with us, and they turned us away at the border. That was traumatic because my wife, nothing like this had ever happened to her. That was the last straw for me in trying to cross the border, so I sort of gave up on trying to get in. I was like, OK, it's been 15 years since the Olympics. I can't do anything corporately, I can't even travel, I'm doing construction. I'm getting mad now. It's affecting my family. That's when I decided to start Ross' Gold, my [medical cannabis] company.
Why did you feel it was time to enter the cannabis industry?
As a gold medalist Olympian, you go down a path that will provide you with a career and an income when you're done your athletics… I decided it was time to go through the open door that I always wanted to go through, but for some reason I waited until I lost all my other opportunities. It was a highly risky move for me five years ago.
It wasn't just me I was trying to provide for. It would be irresponsible at this point not to walk through the open doors the cannabis industry was providing me.
How did you decide it was time to try again to get back into the US?
In the springtime, I decided that with legalization of recreational use of cannabis coming up, with our brand growing in popularity Canada and south of the border in the US, I would go through the process again and see if I was able to get in.
I feel glad now that I was able to get it for a lot of reasons. My step dad passed away in California last year, and I wasn't allowed to go to the funeral.
I'm going to plan a trip to go visit my mom in Palm Springs. I've got three kids now, it's something we've always wanted to do. For the longest time, it hasn't been a possibility.
What else has been challenging not being able to go to the States?
There's a lot of opportunity to be able to travel and do business in the States. Those are huge opportunities as a Canadian, and you take them for granted until they're taken away from you. That's what I've realized is how much it means to you to not be allowed in. It hurts your feelings, you take it personally… You're watching TV, everything you're watching is American. It's just constantly in your head. You can't look away from the fact every day that you're not allowed in. It's nice to not have to be reminded of things like that and be free.
The cultures are so linked, and most of the Canadian population is along the border.
That's it. Everything we do, and what we look at, what we're buying in stores—everything has some connection to the States. If you're not allowed down there, there's a lot of reminders of that. If you're American and you're not allowed into Canada, how many times do you have maple syrup on your table to remind you? Who gives a shit if you're not allowed into Canada?
So you lived in Whistler for a long time, right?
I'm from Vancouver. I lived in Whistler starting at age 19 and spent about 25 years there, the first half of which I was mostly in Europe on the World Cup tour… Not being allowed into the States pretty much killed my career and my motivation to keep racing because the X Games were brand new at the time, and I was retiring from the World Cup. I live in Kelowna, BC now.
What was Whistler like when you were there?
It was a lot different than it is now. There was still a great party culture, maybe even a better culture in the 80s and 90s than there is today… Today, we have a lot more people from other countries coming to work in Whistler. Back in the day, I watched the whole thing get built. In those days, you would have friends who literally lived in shacks in the woods that they didn't pay for, squatters. These were professional ski bums. It was just fun. There were lots of good times. Lots of hallucinogens back in the day—it was just closer to the 60s and 70s when you were in Whistler. It was more like a commune back in those days; in the 80s and 90s, it was still hanging onto that great era… and combining it with powder skiing and cabins in the wood and outhouses, just survival of being a ski bum.
Now it's all fancy, Audis and Mercedes backed up to Vancouver. It's a totally different scene. The 20-somethings nowadays in Whistler are completely different animals compared to what we were. I'm 46 now, so I'm starting to notice a difference.
What do you think of current issues with US border guards asking about cannabis use, given that we are coming up on cannabis legalization in July 2018?
It's a big mess, and it's going to affect the border towns in the states more than anything because they rely on a lot of cross-border shopping and tourism. Right now, the political climate in the US is not conducive to relaxing cannabis laws.
I would recommend people lie through their teeth and say they never smoked weed in their life and don't know anyone who has. If you say to them that you use weed, not only do you get turned around, but you [could] get banned for your whole life, then you have to start the same process I have had to go through.
I will never be able to enter the US without a waiver… I might see 15 more waivers for the rest of my life. It costs a grand every time you do it; every time you do it they do a background check on you.
There's a lot of young people who don't know. Every day there's another 19- or 20-year-old crossing the border who doesn't know. I've been searched, strip-searched, had my RV searched. As a teenager you think it's a joke. Get turned away for life and see how funny it is… Politicians in Canada have said to tell the truth, and young adults are going to think it's going to be OK.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.