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Ollies & Ounces: Pro Skateboarding’s Burgeoning Love Affair with Legal Weed

No strangers to getting stoned, professional skateboarders are taking full advantage of legalization in California, signing on with 420-friendly sponsors and starting their own cannabis businesses.

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Since the late 1980s, you can count the advancements in skateboard equipment on one hand and still have a couple fingers leftover. Boards are typically constructed with seven plies of pressed maple, wheels are molded from performance urethane, and skate bearings are still made of the same steel rollers found in $2 fidget spinners. So when industry heavyweights like Venture, Thunder, and Independent began debuting trucks (the metal-turning apparatus connecting the deck to the wheels) with hollow axles and bolts, creating hardware that was both stronger and lighter than previous models, skaters immediately packed the carved-out titanium trucks with weed and started smoking

That is to say, skateboarders do not like change, but they love weed.

Cannabis has been an integral part of skateboarding culture long before either offered a viable career path or were even remotely “professional.” In the 2001 documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys, Tony Alva and the rest of the groundbreaking Zephyr skate team recall cannabis use as a daily indulgence in the backyard pools and slalom hills of the burgeoning 1970s skate scene. As ramps grew taller and the sport progressed, Christian Hosoi, the ‘80s high-flying halfpipe rockstar, took time before every competition to roll up and get stoned with his dad. Hell, even Tony Hawk, Mr. 900 himself, has come clean about his occasional cannabis use. No matter the era, skateboarding’s biggest names have always embraced the sweet leaf. 

Tommy Sandoval blasts a frontside flip on Weedmaps latest tour

Under prohibition, skaters have openly flaunted their relationship with pot through sophomoric and sometimes-innovative design aesthetics. While street skating’s delinquent image led to innumerable board graphics sporting red-eyes and t-shirts emblazoned with pot leaves, skateboarders also reimagined the industry’s famously puffy footwear to incorporate the perfect stash spot for dime bags. And once hollow axle trucks became the norm, skate-shop-turned-fashion-darling Supreme debuted a functional skate tool that conveniently doubled as a discreet pipe. Outside of novelty engineering, branded paraphernalia, and cartoonish clothing, however, the skate world has historically shied away from any explicit relationships or direct partnerships with the plant itself. 

But now that cannabis legalization has taken hold across the country, and in the skate industry’s home state of California in particular, skateboarding has formally opened its doors to pot and vice versa, turning a decades-old countercultural love affair into a burgeoning form of business synergy.

Tommy Sandoval knocks out a frontside 50-50 on the front of a truck while Weedmaps captures all the angles

Through branding and sponsorship deals with licensed California cannabis companies and ancillary businesses — plus their own entrepreneurial forays into legal weed — professional skateboarders have emerged as some of the most salient spokesmen in the Golden State’s legal landscape. Similar to the marijuana industry itself, skateboarding has so far been able to straddle the worlds of counterculture authenticity and growing mainstream interest. And in an advertising era reliant on social media influencers but marred by bots, paid followers, and unstable engagement, pro skaters are unicorns who can command the attention of hundreds of thousands of like-minded, real-life fans every time they step on a board or post a selfie.

For cannabis businesses looking to convey an image of attention-grabbing active energy and spirit without relying on the industry’s traditional rapper, comedian and model brand ambassadors, the options for viable influencers are still limited. Circumventing institutional league barriers in conventional sports, ganjapreneurs have targeted athletes from niche sports like long distance ultrarunning and professional skiing to represent their product. But while those sports are practiced by a small number of people and watched by even fewer, recent estimates suggest that there are over 6 million skateboarders in the U.S. alone — not to mention all the multinational sportswear and energy drink brands putting in overtime to turn pro skaters into household names

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Unlike traditional sports like football, basketball, and baseball, where cannabis sits on the banned substance list of nearly every professional league, skateboarding isn’t governed by any all-encompassing body. While the X-Games, Street League, and impending Olympics are the only skating that winds up on TV, professional skateboarding is facilitated almost exclusively through individual endorsement deals and not competition. There is no NFL, NBA, or MLB equivalent in skateboarding, and so as long as a board company is willing to print a skater’s name on a deck and pay them every month, they are considered a pro. Without an official league pressing bi-monthly drug tests, and therefore no risk of athletes getting suspended, skateboarders are free to promote their own pot use without waiting for a call from a concerned commissioner. As a result, skaters are ideal ambassadors for a nascent marijuana industry that’s still trying to break into America’s mainstream. 

In a similar fashion to Wall Street investors, skateboarding started dipping its toes into the “green rush” pool by collaborating with ancillary businesses like Raw rolling papers and California-based dispensary locator Weedmaps — companies rooted in cannabis, but without the federal risks that come with growing or selling the plant itself. In May of 2016, just six months before Golden State voters would legalize adult-use cannabis, Weedmaps hired Eric Sorensen, a former marketing guru at skate shoe brand Osiris and clothing company BLVD Supply, to bring a few skaters into the Weedmaps fold. Before the year was up, Sorenson had locked down A-list pro skateboarders Boo Johnson, Jaws, Tommy Sandoval, Marius Syvänen, and Braydon Szafranski to represent the brand in Hawaii on Weedmaps’ first tour — a common skate industry practice where riders live together for weeks on end, filming tricks, signing autographs at skate shops, and putting on demos at local skateparks.

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In the two years since, as California’s legalization law was fine-tuned and implemented, Sorensen used his connections at Weedmaps to help Johnson, Jaws, and other team riders lock down sponsorship deals with companies like Connected — a vertically-integrated cannabis cultivation, manufacturing, and retail company with dispensaries across the state — and Flav, a Golden State ganja brand offering flower, vape cartridges, edibles, and more. Simultaneously, Weedmaps cemented itself as the first cannabis-related business to crack skateboarding’s notoriously tough core audience. In March of 2017, Transworld’s website posted videos from the Hawaii tour, and Weedmaps-sponsored skaters began to routinely name-drop the brand in the pages of Thrasher Magazine, the skate industry’s monthly Bible.

“What [the company] was looking to do at the beginning was to be a part of the culture,” said Sorensen, whose official title is Weedmaps Sports Director, to MERRY JANE. “They wanted skaters that could speak authentically to the community and organically grow the brand around skating. But I don’t think any of us expected it to grow like it has.”

Like cannabis, skateboarding can be found in every pocket of the world, but the Golden State is still mecca. Despite world-class video parts and sought-after small brands coming from New York City to London and everywhere in between, the epicenter of the skate industry is still contained within 100 square miles of SoCal highway. So when California opened the floodgates to the world’s largest marijuana market, it not only allowed for pros to expand their sponsorship portfolios, but also for skateboarding’s deeply entrenched entrepreneurial spirit to cross-pollinate with the legal cannabis industry. 

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Take Jerry Gurney, for example. The pool ripper and recently-minted board company free agent is arguably the first skater to formally start his own full-fledged lifestyle brand that fuses elements of SoCal skate culture with cannabis. Gurney is the mind behind Devils Lettuce Skate™, a team of brand ambassadors that promote Devils Lettuce™ and other branded products which include skate gear, apparel, and cannabis, designed for and by skateboarders and extreme athletes. Conceived after a chance meeting with Kyle Walton — a longtime skateboarder and veteran of California’s long-standing medical marijuana industry — the two decided to create a company with very particular aims. 

“When I was originally talking to Jerry and coming up with the business plan, he said ‘There’s three main things we need,’” Walton told MERRY JANE. Gurney suggested to him that the brand “needs to be as cheap as we can make it, because skaters don’t have any money; it needs to come in a bag, so that it can’t break in your pocket or backpack like a glass jar; and it needs to be more than an eighth, so that you can take it on a trip and it will actually last.”

Devils Lettuce subsequently launched in California’s medical marijuana market in November 2017. The brand quickly gained a following in the West Coast skate scene, and, with Walton’s help, alongside strategic partnerships with growers like Spire Ridge Farms in Humboldt, transitioned to the state’s recreational market in 2018. Focused on appealing to skaters, the co-founders decided to forego the latest hyped strains for a simpler approach, selling four varieties named indica, sativa, hybrid, and CBD; each packaged in half-ounce bags to accommodate a full crew’s worth of joints or spliffs. The containers, with a logo of a Devils grin and bright colors differentiating strain types, feature hand-picked small buds that might otherwise be processed into concentrates. With middle-of-the-road THC levels and larger-than-normal package size, the company’s flower is typically one of the least expensive options on dispensary shelves, offering skaters as much bang for their buck as possible.

Devils Lettuce™ subsequently launched its apparel and cannabis products in California’s medical marijuana market in November 2017. The brand quickly gained a following in the West Coast skate scene, and, with Walton’s help, alongside strategic partnerships with growers like Spire Ridge Farms in Humboldt, transitioned to the state’s recreational market in 2018. Focused on appealing to skaters, the co-founders decided to forego the latest hyped strains for a simpler approach, selling four varieties named indica, sativa, hybrid, and CBD; each packaged in half-ounce bags to accommodate a full crew’s worth of joints or spliffs. The containers, with a logo of a devil’s grin and bright colors differentiating strain types, feature hand-picked small buds that might otherwise be processed into concentrates. With middle-of-the-road THC levels and larger-than-normal package size, the company’s flower is typically one of the least expensive options on dispensary shelves, offering skaters as much bang for their buck as possible.

Mimicking skateboarding’s tried-and-true sponsorship marketing model, Gurney and Walton immediately started building the Devils Lettuce Skate™ team, with a handpicked list of cult-favorite pros including Chris Gregson, Jeremy Leabres, Jon Dickson, and Forrest Edwards.

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The Devils Lettuce Skate™ team (from left): Jeremy Leabres, Chris Gregson, Jon Dickson, Forrest Edwards, Jerry Gurney

Thanks to regulations from Golden State’s Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC), though, Devils Lettuce Skate™ has had to conduct itself a little different than skate brands like Spitfire and Baker, or even ancillary pot businesses like Weedmaps. Per California’s recreational legalization statute, cannabis companies are strictly outlawed from gifting free marijuana for advertising purposes, and all plant-specific marketing material must be targeted at adults 21 years and older. 

Accordingly, Devils Lettuce Skate™ has a warning at the top of their Instagram page alerting viewers that all of their posts, including skate clips, are intended for audiences 21 years and older. The brand has also taken steps to prevent the company and team riders from tripping over any BCC red tape. Walton refused to discuss contract specifics, but told MERRY JANE that the skate team is paid well enough that they can visit their local dispensary to pick up an ounce of weed whenever they’re in need, instead of relying on monthly packages of free product like every other sponsored skater. And while most skate companies partner with Thrasher to host videos on the magazine’s 1.5 million subscriber-strong YouTube page, Gurney and company’s first promo was featured on Thrasher’s web page, but linked back to the Devils Lettuce Skate™ YouTube account to avoid any violations of BCC advertising rules.

In addition to legal complications for California cannabis companies looking to collaborate with the skate industry, some pro skaters have had their own reservations about getting into the ganja game. For longtime Zero Skateboards pro Tommy Sandoval — a frequent cannabis user and current member of the Weedmaps skate team who routinely takes slams that would put mere mortals into extended hospital stays — going out on a limb to openly endorse a federally scheduled drug wasn’t the snap decision you might expect.

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“I have kids, and that definitely played into whether or not I was gonna say yes or no to the offer,” Sandoval told MERRY JANE. “Had it been a year or two earlier, I don’t think it would have been an option for me, but getting hooked up with Weedmaps right when weed was being legalized made it the perfect time, and the more I thought about it, the more it made sense.”

Matt Miller, a DC Shoes pro for more than eight years, is another celebrated shredder who's recently warmed up to the idea of pursuing a legal cannabis company. In July, he debuted Miller Healer, a line of cannabidiol (CBD) oils, salves, transdermal patches, and edibles. All Miller Healer products are derived from industrial hemp, so the brand can be sold online and shipped across the globe, like hundreds of other wellness-oriented CBD products. 

Miller Healer products, similar to Devil’s Lettuce, were engineered specifically for the cement-for-breakfast lifestyle of skateboarders. As such, the company doesn’t skimp on dosing: its salves feature 1,000 milligrams of CBD, and its patches contain 100 milligrams of CBD a piece, available in 30-packs.

“The only things skaters have ever used for pain relief is Advil or Tylenol from CVS,” Miller told MERRY JANE. “I think that’s part of the reason why cannabis is so accepted in skateboarding; we don’t typically use anything else to help recover from all of the pain we go through… That’s why I started [Miller Healer]. I’m not gonna lie — I’m getting older, and I would have a full day of skating and have to take two days off because I was so sore. Now I can have that same battle, but by doing my daily CBD regimen, I’m able to still skate the next day.” Miller added that “having other skaters hit me up for more products, telling me it’s saving their back enough to help them travel on a trip — it’s amazing. I just wanted to make a product that actually works for skaters.”

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As Miller Healer’s products aren’t bound by the same state-specific regulations that complicate the Devil’s Lettuce marketing plan, Miller has been shipping his CBD goods to some of the world’s most renowned pros, giving away free samples with the implied-but-not-demanded expectation of a reciprocal Instagram repost. Miller modestly says that he’s leveraged his decade’s worth of industry connections to reach huge audiences through skateboarding’s highly-followed presence across social media.

“It sounds corny to say, but in this life it’s all about who you know. And when you’re constantly travelling and spending every day skating, you meet a lot of people,” Miller told MERRY JANE. “I definitely have an advantage because skateboarding is all about friendship. To have guys like Ishod Wair [Thrasher’s 2013 Skater of the Year, whose Instagram page has over 600,000 followers] and other top pros posting Miller Healer on Instagram is a huge leg up; other companies pay top dollar for that.”

Thanks to cannabidiol’s miraculous healing properties, CBD creams and tinctures have caught on like wildfire in skate circles. Technical ledge wizard Torey Pudwill has debuted his own hemp CBD cream through his immensely popular griptape and clothing company, Grizzly. And, like health stores around the country, skate shops have begun carrying CBD salves and gummies alongside decks and shoes.

With the cannabis industry connections and help of Weedmaps’ Sorensen, Aaron “Jaws” Homoki has been able to land his own hemp CBD sponsorship with SoCal’s Flower of Life brand. Jaws, who holds the world record for the highest ollie ever, has made a name jumping off of steep rooftops and stair sets worthy of Zeppelin lyrics. In a shining example of the two industries’ mutually beneficial business dealings, Jaws told MERRY JANE that daily CBD treatment has allowed him to cut entire days off his post-skate recovery process, while a recent post of Flower of Life’s CBD gummies on his Instagram brought in over 17,000 likes — more than twice the amount of followers the hemp brand has on their own page.

“I’ve constantly got my friends and other pros asking for free weed and CBD. I’ve got friends asking for CBD for their grandmas now,” Jaws told MERRY JANE. “It’s already happening; more companies and skaters are getting into the game. As weed gets legalized in more places and recognized more, in 10 years it will be just like having an energy drink sponsor.”

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At Green Street, a Los Angeles-based creative agency focused on the cannabis industry, president and co-founder Rama Mayo is on the same page, and predicts that the mutualism between skating and cannabis will only continue to flourish.

“Skateboarders have the best position,” Mayo told MERRY JANE. “They are their own personal brands. Obviously their board and shoe sponsors have a lot to do with it, but at the end of the day, these skaters are artists, and because they don’t have any regulations, they can do their own thing.”

And in the Golden State cannabis industry, where former career criminals are turning into licensed business operators overnight, it hasn’t taken much convincing to assure cannabis industry players that skateboarding and its similar underground origins could help boost their brands.

“Cannabis companies are so limited in their options for sponsored athletes that they will take whatever they can get,” Mayo said. “But these people running weed brands also grew up skating, so they’re going to want to have it a part of their brand naturally, beyond the marketing aspect. This is just how they think.”

As the California cannabis sector grows, the CBD craze continues, and marijuana legalization takes hold in more states across the U.S., the same skateboard industry that changed video games forever and turned a Manhattan skate shop into a billion-dollar fashion brand will be there, with a joint lit, board in hand, and a small slice of America’s green rush in its back pocket.

Follow Zach Harris on Twitter

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