When Canada legalized marijuana in October 2018, pushback came from an unexpected place––search and rescue. Not long ago, marijuana was still considered a bad drug mostly used by hippies and stoners. These days it’s becoming legal, socially accepted, and even used for its medicinal purposes. Legal or illegal, the odors wafting off the chairlift don’t lie – people like to smoke weed in the mountains, but is using a mind-altering drug while recreating outside really a good idea?
Cannabis contains cannabinoids, which are chemicals that interact with receptors in the brain. There are estimated to be over 100 of these compounds in marijuana, but Tetrahydrocannabinol (famously known as THC) is the main player in the game. THC is close in chemical composition to the neurotransmitter anandamide, a natural cannabinoid produced by the brain that regulates our mood, sleep, memory, and appetite. Once THC reaches the brain, it binds to anandamide receptors and artificially activates neurons, creating the classic “high” sensation.
THC also interacts with receptors that control muscle movements. In this case, the cannabinoids interfere with the activity of motor neurons, which can cause muscle weakness and loss of coordination when combined with the effects on the brain. Interestingly, THC creams are being used to treat chronic muscle cramps for this very reason.
Recreational marijuana use is currently legal in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington (mostly all states associated with skiing – coincidence?), the District of Columbia, and nationwide across Canada. North Shore Search and Rescue in B.C. is warning those headed into the mountains that doing so under the influence of any mind-altering substance is a bad idea. They already have their work cut out for them taking care of unprepared hikers, but things become a lot more complicated when the subjects are intoxicated and/or high.
In a blog post on their website, North Shore Search and Rescue notes five interesting rescue examples involving drug use. According to them, this is just a small sample from a large list of similar incidents:
Two individuals went snowshoe camping on Mount Seymour and at some point in the night, they consumed marijuana and ecstasy. One of the campers had a psychotic episode and stabbed his friend with a bowie knife, while his friend returned the favor. The RCMP emergency response team responded with our members and both snowshoers were arrested and taken to the hospital.
Near Lions Bay, a hiker had consumed mushrooms and marijuana, and while going to urinate, fell 60 meters into a ravine. He sustained a serious head injury and had to be evacuated by helicopter long line.
In Colorado, where pot is legal and outdoor recreation is a way of life, it’s still illegal to use it in public or on state and federal land. The laws are pretty much the same in California and Washington. That rules out legally getting high on the slopes or trails unless you’re on private property. Even so, that hasn’t stopped people from publishing guides on the best outdoor spots to get high.
As for marijuana-related injuries, all three states report an increase in emergency room visits by people who’ve used the drug. With legal sales and more users, that’s no surprise. I could not find any specific reports of injuries related to hiking, biking, skiing, etc., but I am sure they exist. Last year four hikers needed rescue from Scafell Pike in England, the country’s tallest mountain, after getting too stoned at the summit to hike down. There’s no way this isn’t happening in the U.S.; we’re just not hearing about it.
Even though there’s plenty of evidence suggesting pot is a bad idea while playing outside, there are more than a few high-profile outdoor athletes using and even endorsing the drug. Tanner Hall, for one, is not shy about his marijuana habits and is even sponsored by a cannabis company. Hall claims the relaxation and pain relief he experiences from weed played a part in every X-Games medal he’s won. Ross Rebagliati won the first-ever Olympic gold medal in snowboarding in 1998 but was DQ’d after THC was discovered in his system. THC wasn’t on the WADA banned substances list at the time, so eventually, the medal was given back.
When Climbing Magazine anonymously surveyed a panel of pro climbers about marijuana use, almost everyone said yes. The reported benefits included pain relief, relaxation, and a heightened sense of creativity when approaching a tough line. Most did acknowledge that there was some safety risk, and it needed to be done extra responsibly. “Smoke pot, check your knot.”
Elite Ultrarunner Avery Collins is another outdoor athlete with a marijuana endorsement deal. Most medical studies agree that THC will not improve aerobic performance or strength, but according to this site, more than a few runners are turning to the drug with the belief that it enhances their training. Dr. Bonn-Miller of the University of Pennsylvania Medical School believes there could be a physiological benefit, as both the cherished “runners high” and the high from THC active the body’s endocannabinoid system. Other Cannabis products like CBD oil have been shown to suppress the body’s natural inflammatory response, which can aid athletes in recovery.
In the end, I think it comes down to responsible use. I’m sure there are plenty of you reading this article that uses marijuana on the chairlift all the time and has never had an accident. Whatever you choose to do, stay safe. Moderation is the name of the game.