Canadian Ross Rebagliati became the most talked  -  about man in the world of sports in February 1998, when he won the very first Olympic gold medal for snowboarding -- and then lost it the next morning, after the International Olympic Committee found 17.8 nanograms of marijuana metabolites in his samples. as it happens, there’s quite a bit more to that story.

Ross began snowboarding back in 1988, before the sport was even organized; before that, he had competed in downhill ski racing. In the early 1990s, he joined the World Cup snowboarding circuit and quickly became a top contender in the field, winning a series of titles over the next several years.

Today, as Canada privatizes its medical marijuana industry, Ross is founding what he hopes will become a national chain of stores and dispensaries. He already possesses the name recognition and the street cred to move to the forefront of providing Canadians with medical cannabis. His team is assembled to monitor the legal challenges and secure the capital necessary to get the business launched as soon as the laws change in 2014. His first cannabis café, Ross’ Gold, will open in Whistler, BC, and Ross plans to tweak his business model further there.

Before this venture, Ross ran for a seat in the Canadian Parliament in a long-drawn-out campaign that eventually ran out of funds before the elections were even called. But while he’s no stranger to controversy, Ross is an affable, popular national hero who has long resided in his home base of Whistler, though he recently moved away from that sparsely populated mountain resort after more than 20 years of snowboarding fame.

The Olympian whom Jay Leno once dubbed "Nickel Bagliati" is finally embracing his smoky image, when for a long time he wished that it would all just go away. But the world these days is a different place than it was in 1998, and Ross was eager to get his story out to HIGH TIMES. The feeling, of course, was mutual, as we were psyched to talk to the first Olympic gold medalist to enter the medical marijuana business

When you were running for Parliament in Canada, what were you trying to accomplish?
My platform was based around child care and senior care -- I wasn't using my association with medical marijuana, you know. Ever since I was at the Olympics 15 years ago, I’ve been synonymous with [marijuana]. I haven’t necessarily gone out to further that association. Fifteen years ago, I probably would have traded a lot for the whole thing to go away. But now, um ... it’s been enough time. I’ve come to terms with the shock and awe of it all.

And now you’re preparing to open up Ross’ Gold, your own cannabis café in Whistler -- but what’s the plan after that?
Once we’ve got Whistler set up, we’re gonna roll out several other stores across Canada -- Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal -- and roll into some smaller markets in the future as things progress.

What can people expect when they walk into Ross’ Gold?
There will be a coffee shop, a retail section and a vapor lounge, as well as the doctor’s office. You will be able to get a prescription for medical marijuana, and then, at that point, what we will do is refer the client to the federally licensed grower to fill their prescription. So there won’t actually be medical marijuana in the store as far as the counter sales are concerned.

It's like a bring - your - own - bottle sort of thing?
In Canada, there's a minimum age limit of 19. But once you’re in, you will be able to hang around, get something to eat, have a coffee, do your emails, watch the big - screen TVs. The vapor lounge is interesting just in the fact that vaporizing the marijuana doesn’t effectively burn it. So you’re not smoking it you’re basically steaming it, and that’s how we get around the ban on smoking indoors.

Is there a conflict in Canada between the provinces and the federal level?
There’s less of a gray area, although there is one. What we’re doing is just falling in line with federal law, regardless of what the provincial status is. The dispensaries that are currently operating in Canada, as in the United States, are actually operating against federal law. But what’s gonna come next year is that these newly licensed production facilities will be given a federal license to dispense.

Do you plan on getting in on that end of it, too?
Absolutely. We’ll be producing these products here and hiring local people to work on these farms. So it’s gonna be really good for the economy  --  especially after the last several years of the economy not performing at all and crashing constantly.

On your website, there’s a whole section on the health benefits of cannabis.
It’s incredible what they’ve been discovering. These tests have been not performed over the last 40 years on purpose. They found out all kinds of things about Alzheimer’s and diabetes. Cannabis is one of the strongest anti - inflammatories ever discovered. The senior population is finally coming around to the idea that maybe all the pharmaceuticals they’ve been taking are causing more problems than not, and that it might be worth checking out medical marijuana.

Speaking of health benefits, you must have been training pretty hard to become a top snowboarder.
Yeah, it was pretty in - depth stuff. I competed from ’88 until '91 just at an amateur level, and then '91, '92, I started the World Cup circuit in Europe. So I did a lot of road biking, I did a lot of weightlifting in the summer. I worked out three days on, one day off, so six days a week, at least two hours each workout ... huge legs, huge pack.

So you arrived at the Olympics, and that must have been something else  --  that whole experience of you winning the gold, the first snowboarding gold ever.
That was an important feature  --  to not only win a gold medal, but maybe to be the first one to ever do it for the sport. It was just amazing, just incredible.

But then you got the bad news. How did that arrive?
It was, you know, the next morning. And we’re up in our hotel room, up at the ski resort. Yeah, the coaches came in and sent everybody out  --  except for me.

That’s not a good sign.
It was just a big, tense moment. And they told me to sit down, and I go, "Oh, this isn’t good." So they told me that somehow, I had failed my drug test. They basically sent me down there on a bus  --  definitely a long, long bus ride. I finally got there and the Canadian Olympic Committee had a team waiting for me, and right away it was just paparazzi and, um, intense. Couldn’t even get off the bus and get from the bus to the hotel room. It was just typical  --  like, an Olympic scandal frenzy. So I finally made it into the hotel  --  barely  --  and I had security people around me, and there was just reporters and cameras in my face and flashes going off. A few hours later, we had to move to a different hotel because they were inundated with people. They had to shut down the hotel. Finally, we got to a different place and started the process of dealing with the Olympic Committee.

Go on.
I told them that I wasn’t smoking and that I got it from secondhand smoke, most likely before I came here just over the Christmas break, that I had stopped smoking in April, etc., etc. But it was like a split decision, unfortunately: Half of them bought it and half of them didn’t. And normally they don’t go against the athlete in a split decision, so it was kind of groundbreaking that they did. And to make it more interesting, one of the Canadian representatives didn’t vote for me either.

Oh, no.
Yeah. So I was kinda, like, extra bad.

What about that 17.8-nanogram test? Was that considered a little bit high for secondhand?
Doctors in Canada proved it could only have been from secondhand smoke. I can vouch for them that they are 100 percent correct.

Awesome.
But, in any case, we appealed the decision. In the meantime, I kind of got escorted up to the local police station and pretty much interrogated for the rest of the day, for about four or five hours.

They take that very seriously.
Eh, you know, doing their jobs. Nothing there  --  just another part of the experience. We had to go through the court of arbitration. They found that marijuana wasn’t on their list of banned substances.

They finally read their own manual?
Yeah -- so that was it, and I got my medal back. So, literally the next day, I was on a flight to Los Angeles to do "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno."

Ross Rebaglaiti with weed

Is that on YouTube?
Yeah, there’s stuff on "SNL," "David Letterman," everybody. I did "Conan" a couple times .... It was insane, man.

Were they telling you they wanted you in a movie or anything like that?
Oh, yeah.

Did you do any?
Yeah. I don’t even remember what it’s called. I think Tom Green was in it, and one of the guys from Jackass. It was like a snowboard movie. Snowboard movie. Perfect. [For the record, the title is Revenge of the Boarding School Dropouts.] Yeah, it was one for the history books.

So do you smoke now?
Yep.

How often?
Daily. For me, it’s kind of like ... um, I don’t know how to describe it: more of a medicinal thing, where it’s like having a coffee -- sometimes you have one in the morning, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you need one in the middle of the day. It all depends what the situation is.

Are you in favor of legalization for recreational use?
I definitely think it should be legal, and prohibition should be lifted for sure. There’s no reason in the world why it shouldn’t be.

But there should be some rules to control it, I assume -- for minors, that sort of thing?
Yeah, I would expect that -- unless you’re a minor with a medical condition that requires you to take and use medical marijuana.

Once I heard marijuana was finally being acknowledged as a "performance - enhancing drug," I thought: perfect. That’s how I always thought of it, because I used it for playing guitar, doing yoga, tai chi, that sort of thing. It helps me focus on my own body. But then I saw your interview, where you said you did not think it was a performance - enhancing drug.
I don’t think it can make you run faster. Something that’s not controlled by your mind, then it’s not performance - enhancing ... so your ability to run fast has nothing to do with whether you’re high or not.

Can it help you focus on your performance, though? And block out other distractions?
Marijuana can help you focus on your training, focus on going to the gym six days a week and 12 hours a week or whatever it is, and break the monotony and help you recover from your workouts. In that respect, it’s performance - enhancing because maybe, indirectly, it can make you run faster  --  because it helps you train more often, because you’re not so bored of it all.

Ross Rebagliati with Olympic Medal

Did you smoke marijuana before the Olympics?
Oh, yeah, sure. I started smoking regularly, proably, when I was 20, and of course I was exposed to it in high school. That’s kind of normal for BC.

You won a lot of titles back then. Were you using marijuana when you won any of those other ones?
No. I may have used the day before, and I may have used the night after  --  that sort of thing.

But you made it a point to be completely straight when it was time for the race?
Yeah, I just didn’t feel like it. High-level competition, where you have a lot of international teams -- there’s a lot of money being spent by sponsors. There’s a lot at stake. You are not at university. And competing at that level, it’s not a party -- it’s very serious, and very, very competitive. I know I’ve won multiple races by around one - 100th or two - 100ths of a second.

You thought it might have hindered your performance?
Ummm ... no, it wasn’t about my actual ability to race. I was just more comfortable not being high around all those people and the TV cameras. There’s a time and a place to use, and for me that wasn’t one of them.

So the race is the job, and you definitely don’t want to mess with that.
You don’t want to drink the coffee, and you don’t want to smoke the joint.

Have you had any negative experiences with marijuana?
Sure. Lots of times.

Really? What kind?
Mostly running out.