Reexamining the Age-Old Relationship Between Marijuana and Surfing

Weed and surfing have forever been associated. Photo: Katerina Humajova

The Inertia

We all have that buddy who likes to take a few puffs before they paddle. Maybe, you are said buddy? In which case…where are you paddling out next, Bud?

I kid, but it’s no long nose ride to say that riding waves has long been associated with rolling joints. In many mainstream minds, surfers are pegged as the kind of beachy slackers who stick a pot leaf on the back of their old Volvo wagon and say “man” a lot. 

But it’s 2024, brothers and sisters. Straight-edge hipsters trip while cross-stepping their mid-lengths and the guy next to you preaches vegan fasting while tracking calories on his Apple watch. Is this staid perception of surfers as perpetual stoners still viable? 

There’s no denying the historical correlation between surfing and cannabis. The rise of marijuana use in the U.S., fueled by the burgeoning jazz scene in the 1930s and ‘40s, coincided with the growth of surfing in the U.S. in the ‘50s. In the birthplace of surfing, Hawaiians cultivated pakalolo as early as the 1840s, cementing it as a seedy piece of surf culture that continued to sift into California as the ‘50s grooved into the ‘60s. 

The invention of fiberglass boards in California in the ‘60s and ‘70s merged with anti-war sentiment and sweeping youthful awakenings regarding race, gender, culture, and class. As such, many surfers endorsed LSD guru Timothy Leary’s “tune in, drop out” ethos, and started rolling spliffs and dropping into waves.

In the mid ‘60s, Laguna Beach locals formed The Brotherhood of Eternal Love, manufacturing LSD in hopes of starting a psychedelic revolution. By the mid ‘70s, some surfers began funding their travels by smuggling Thai sticks from Southeast Asia to America as detailed in Thai Stick: Surfers, Scammers, and the Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade; to which Kelly Slater bought the film rights in 2016.

As the years passed, the image of surfers as stoners was epitomized by Sean Penn’s portrayal of Jeff Spicoli’s character in 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, who gleefully tumbles out of his van amid clouds of pot smoke. While the link between riding waves and the sacred herb feels timeless, the stigma doesn’t account for the evolution of our societal view of cannabis.

Cannabis is now medically legal in 40 states plus the District of Columbia, and recreationally legal in 24. Weed may still be federally illegal, but it beckons us from highway billboards, delivery services, outlets, and a vast array of profitable companies. 

Meanwhile. CBD, pot’s overly enthusiastic younger sibling, is used by millions to treat everything from anxiety to pain, though its clinical effects remain scientifically debatable. CBD also presents an additional paradox, since hemp-derived CBD – containing less than three percent THC – is legal in the U.S. thanks to 2018’s Farm Bill, but cannabis-derived CBD is not.

Speaking of paradoxes, surfing, once viewed as a countercultural lifestyle, has evolved into an Olympic Sport. Despite its ups and downs, the surf industry is a multi-million-dollar business, and COVID’s two-year urban retreat created a rookie popularity spike rued by veteran surfers globally.

Like anything else, as surfing grows more commercially lucrative, it trends more corporate. The World Surf league keeps cannabis on its list of banned substances, yet one of the league’s main sponsors is (hemp derived) CBDMD. The WSL’s profit-forward policy is the same as that of the Feds: the CBD its surfers use for recovery, for example, can only contain three percent or less THC, and therefore cannot get anyone blissed out after a big-wave beatdown.

The last decade or so has seen many professional athletes shift their attitudes towards sobriety, and surfing is no exception. Pro surfers like big-wave guru Billy Kemper and New Jersey charger Ben Gravy credit their clutch performances – and happiness – to their sobriety. Some, like Kemper and pro Sage Erickson, among others, endorse the healing powers of CBD.

That doesn’t mean that the potheads have gone up in smoke. Ganja die-hard and longboard champ Joel Tudor, along with others, remains openly critical of what they see as the silliness and hypocrisy of the WSL’s drug policy, and surfers like Justin Quintal are challenging the WSL by accepting sponsorships from Cannabis companies such as Sunburn Cannabis. 

Quintal, who recently competed in the 2023 Pipe Masters, has won 10 Duct Tapes as well as the WSL World Longboard Title. He tells Forbes magazine that “consumption doesn’t define a person’s work ethic or ambition.” Quintal not only acknowledges, but endorses the overlapping legacies of both the marijuana trade and surfing, noting that Sunburn’s founder was a pot smuggler in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He sees weed as a “natural extension of the surfing lifestyle…that embraces authenticity, freedom and the healing powers of nature.”

On the other hand, Kelly Slater, who has spoken reverentially of a one-time experience with ayahuasca, avoids weed in favor of the sober life. Rob Machado also eschews chemical highs for wave-induced euphoria, and even did a drug-free YouTube spot.

Even though it sometimes feels as though surfing’s freethinking forefathers like Bruce Gold have been replaced by the grim underwater toil of Laird Hamilton, the stereotype of the baked hippy in the ramshackle VW Bug endures. 

I’ll admit, I’m surprised when I don’t smell Humboldt County’s finest when I’m pulling on my wetsuit, regardless of whether my car is parked in Southern California or Rhode Island.

However, the smell of pot smoke is also in the air at the city park, the dog park, Petco Park, your local Trader Joes, the town hall, and on and on. The skunky scent has become ubiquitous in most public places, and it is mostly ignored. 

Surfing, too, has become ubiquitous anywhere there is a wave, be it ocean, lake or waterpark. Surf spots everywhere are jammed. Good days, flat days, rainy days; it doesn’t matter. Finding an empty lineup is much, much harder than finding a pre-roll for a penny (totally not speaking from experience).

Despite the crowds, most surfers possess plenty of aspirations. Surfers’ prioritization of the ocean above all else often places them in a separate category than non-aquatic, career-oriented people. Unlike other hobbies and sports, surfing can easily take over one’s life with its proven addictive qualities. Living near the beach, traveling to new spots, improving with every session, even shaping boards – these remain the goals surfers live by. 

Admittedly, these goals are also oftentimes baffling to the rest of our consumer-driven, capitalist society.

Generally, surfers are also more open to new experiences and experimentation, which can come in a variety of forms. One of these forms is substances, and one of those substances is cannabis. However, we’re also open to acai smoothies, new workouts, CBD and unfamiliar surf spots. Many surfers across the globe were eating “clean” before it was a thing, and like it or not, surfing contributes to fashion and other trends across the globe.

Here’s the thing: neither surfing nor pot smoking are “subcultures” anymore. They have both spawned unique, rich cultures that we have memorialized and, as expected, rapidly commodified. 

Surfing and weed will perpetually remain rolled up together in the same way that smoking cannabis is also associated with musicians and photographers and abstract artists and creators and sculptors and writers, and many others on a long scroll of creative souls. 

There are, of course, also numerous surfers and artists who are sober, creative, and amazingly successful. Some, for example, use meditation to get to the place where they can turn everything else off and focus on their craft.

The key is that these are people who enjoy life, adventure, and risk, and feel best when they are testing themselves, and running their saws – and surfboards – against the societal grain. 

The topic reminds me of a story told to me by a friend and Lake Tahoe local, years ago. He lucked into skiing a few laps with the late Warren Miller. On the lift, Miller looked over. “You know why you love skiing so much?”

“No,” my buddy said, because that’s what you say in those situations.

“The freedom,” Miller motioned to the open powder-field below them. “You can go anywhere you want.” 

Anyway…back to this whole surfing and weed thing…wait, what were we talking about again?


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