NewsBriefs BUTTONS

Canadian Snowboarder Retains Olympic Gold Medal After Testing Positive For Marijuana; Canadian Debate on Marijuana Decriminalization Prompted


February 1998

Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati, 26, won the men's giant slalom on February 8 in the Olympic Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. After Rebagliati tested positive for marijuana -- 17.8 nanograms of metabolite per milliliter -- the International Olympic Committee (IOC) stripped him of his gold medal on February 10. The following day, the IOC returned the medal, saying it did not have the power to take it (Joe Lapointe, "Canadian Loses Gold For Failing Drug Test," New York Times, February 11, 1998; Mike Downey, "Rebagliati Stripped of Gold," Los Angeles Times, February 11, 1998, p. N5; Thom Loverro, "Marijuana costs Canadian gold," Washington Times, February 11, 1998, p. B1; "Drug test may fell snowboard champ," Boston Globe, February 11, 1998, p. D6).

The Olympic Court for Arbitration of Sport (CAS) voted unanimously to reinstate Rebagliati's gold medal. The Court ruled that the IOC did not have an agreement with the International Ski Federation regarding marijuana use and therefore did not have the authority to strip the medal. "It's purely the legal issue. It's not our role to examine the social issues at this stage," said Jean Philippe Rochat, secretary general of the CAS. "It's a clear message that if the international sports body wants such rules, it has to specify clearly that marijuana is a forbidden substance," Rochat said.

Rebagliati said that he has not smoked marijuana since April 1997 and that he must have inhaled secondhand marijuana smoke at a going-away party in January 1998. Given the extremely low amounts of marijuana in Rebagliati's system, medical experts said the gold medal winner's story is plausible. Marijuana is fat-soluble and stays in the body for long periods of time, said Ronald L. Alkana, professor of molecular pharmacology and toxicology at the USC School of Pharmacy.

On February 19, head of the medical panel of the IOC, Prince Alexandre de Merode, said that he believes the snowboarder did not stop smoking marijuana in April as Rebaliati claimed. De Merode said Rebagliati had had "unusually high" levels of marijuana in his urine test in a December drug test (Mike Shahin, "Official Accuses Rebagliati of Lying About Pot Habit," Ottawa Citizen, February 20, 1998, p. A1).

Rebagliati maintained that his original story is true. De Merode's accusation brought criticism from Rebagliati's family and supporters. Mark Rebagliati, Ross' father, accused de Merode of doing damage control for the IOC, and questioned how the medical expert acquired Rebagliati's confidential report. The Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, which is responsible for drug testing all athletes in Canada, said it is "inappropriate for the IOC to be commenting on any finding from the Nagano test, or any other source of information concerning the presence or absence of marijuana in Mr. Rebagliati's samples, past or present" (Mike Shahin, "Rebagliati Denies He Lied," Vancouver Sun, February 20, 1998, p. A1).


Widespread public support for Rebagliati led several federal politicians to say they would welcome a debate regarding marijuana decriminalization. "My colleague, the minister of health, and I have both indicated we are willing to look at the question of decriminalizing [marijuana] for medical purposes and that in fact our officials have begun that discussion," said Justice Minister Anne McLellan (Sandra McCulloch, "Legalized Pot Proponents See Golden Opportunity For Debate," Victoria Times-Colonist, February 13, 1998).

Chris Clay, whose constitutional challenge to Canada's marijuana prohibition will be heard by an appeals court this summer, said the Rebagliati situation creates positive opportunities for grassroots marijuana activism. Clay has launched a nationwide petition to decriminalize marijuana in Canada. More than 200 petitions have been sent to hemp retail stores across Canada. Clay hopes to get 100,000 signatures to send to Parliament by the end of 1998 (Canadian Press, "Pro-Pot Activist Sees Golden Opportunity," February 20, 1998).

Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien supported Rebagliati being allowed to keep the gold medal. However, he said he is opposed to relaxing marijuana laws (Sean Durkan, "Chretien Says He's Opposed to Relaxing Marijuana Laws," London Free Press, February 14, 1998).

International Olympic Committee - Chateau De Vidy, P.O. Box 356, 1007 Lausanne, SWITZERLAND, Tel: (011) (41) (21) 621-6111.

Justice Minister Anne McLellan - 284 Wellington St., Justice Building, 4th Floor, Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0H8, Tel: (613) 992-4621.

Chris Clay - 116 Stanhope Place, London, Ontario N6C 4W8, CANADA, E-mail: <>, Web: <>.