Olympian Ross Rebagliati has tried to distance himself from a now infamous incident at the 1998 Winter Games when his snowboarding gold medal, the first ever awarded in the sport, was stripped after doping tests found THC in his circulatory system.
His medal was eventually returned because marijuana wasn't on the International Olympic Committee's list of banned substances, but he's never been able to shake his association with B.C.'s biggest export.
"Over the years I've kind of downplayed it, put it on the backburner and tried to move forward without having (marijuana) be a part of my reputation," said the 41-year-old Rebagliati. "It's hurt me corporately, but I've basically come to the conclusion that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em."
The Olympian announced his preliminary plans last week to establish a government approved medical marijuana dispensary and retail outlet in Whistler, called Ross' Gold. The idea came from recent changes in the states of Washington and Colorado legalizing marijuana for recreational use and the announcement last month that Health Canada would start phasing out its production of medical marijuana, opening the market to companies that meet "strict security requirements."
The idea is to treat marijuana as any other narcotic used for medical purposes. Under the new changes, patients would be able to take their prescription to a licensed marijuana producer.
Current regulations require patients to apply to the Marijuana Medical Access Program. If approved, they can either grow marijuana for personal use at home, or purchase it from a government producer. There are currently around 26,000 people taking part in the federal program.
The professional snowboarder teamed with venture capitalist Patrick Smyth to establish the company, called Rebagliati's Gold Inc.
"We want to get in early, establish a brand and build up the name right now. We'll start off building revenues through retail items and that sort of thing," said Smyth. "We don't want to sit there and wait for licensing and all the regulatory framework to be done. We want to get in there now."
While plans for the retail store are still in the early stages, Rebagliati said his team is looking at "a couple places" in Whistler to set up their flagship store, with the hopes of expanding into other locations across Canada in the future.
"There will be a pharmaceutical component to (the store), and within that area of the dispensary there will be retail there, so you can buy bongs, pipes, vaporizers and things like that," said Rebagliati. "The feel of the store is not going to be your typical head shop."
Ideally, Rebagliati hopes that his company will be positioned to serve the general public in the event that legalization occurs, although for the time being his company is "working 100 per cent within the restrictions and guidelines that have been laid out with the new laws."
Ottawa plans to have the new guidelines in place by March 31 of this year, although full implementation of the new legislation is not expected until the spring of 2014. Rebagliati said he wants the store to be up and running before the new laws come into effect.
Part of his goal with the dispensary is to not only help remove the taboo sometimes associated with marijuana use, but to also promote the plant's medicinal benefits. He also noted that the easing of medical marijuana regulations and eventual legalization would help to take drug revenues out of the hands of criminal organizations, which are thought to control roughly 85 per cent of the cannabis market in B.C., according to provincial policing agencies.
The company has already attracted significant interest from investors looking to stake their place in a newly emerging market, said Smyth.
"We floated the idea to a few people we know from a financial perspective and everybody loved it," he said. "It's not like a tech deal or something like that. Everyone knows what marijuana is and it's not like there's not a demand for it."
Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden expressed her support for the decriminalization of marijuana at September's Union of British Columbia Municipalities conference, a move that was echoed by many municipal officials across the province and outgoing local Liberal MLA Joan McIntyre.
A recent study published in the International Journal of Drug Policy by researchers from Simon Fraser and the University of British Columbia stated that the legalization of marijuana in the province could generate $2.5 billion in government tax and licensing revenues over the next five years.