drugs and surfing


Surfing allied itself with the mid-1960s-launched youth movement, more so than any other sport or recreation, so it's not surprising that drug use quickly became a popular and often celebrated part of surf culture. Cartoonist Rick Griffin embroidered a 1967 two-page Surfer magazine  illustration with marijuana leaves; surf movies of the late 1960s often featured processing effects that allowed the on-screen surfers to leave "acid tracks" as they rode; Wilken Surfboards introduced the Meth Model in 1970 with the slogan "For Those Who Like Speed"; and surf journalist Drew Kampion, in his Surfing magazine coverage of the 1972 World Surfing Championships in San Diego, wrote of "the occasional snow-flurry" passing through the contestants' hotel rooms—an in-crowd (at the time) reference to cocaine use.

Heroin, psychedelics, and amphetamines have gone in and out of fashion in the surf world, but marijuana has always been the sport's most popular drug—influenced perhaps by surfing's fundamental Hawaii-based easy-does-it outlook. Surfers in the '60s and '70s, meanwhile, seemed to be more inclined than their peers toward drug dealing and trafficking, in part because they were already members of a mildly outlaw society, and for the more practical reason that flexible work hours allowed the surfer/dealer to spend as much time as possible in the water. In 2008 High Times magazine published "The History of Surfing and Smuggling," an in-depth examination of the relationship between surfing and drug running. That said, drug use and abuse among surfers has for the most part been similar to that of any other young, entitled, leisure-class group.

The surf world's litanay of drug-related mishaps and tragedies has long been a source of anguish, sadness, fear, and prurient interest. Mike Hynson, Endless Summer co-star and LSD-ingesting Timothy Leary acolyte, regretfully remarked to Surfer magazine: "by the time acid was against the law, we were way beyond saving." Mid-'60s surfing prodigy Kevin Brennan of Australia died in 1975 of a heroin overdose; 1974 U.S. champion Rick Rasmussen was shot and killed during a drug deal in Harlem, New York. Hawaiian surfers Tommy Winkler, Rusty Starr, Tim Fretz, and Eric Diaz; Florida surfer-writer Bruce Valluzzi—all died of drug-related causes. California big-wave surfer Peter Davi drowned while surfing the break Ghost Trees in 2008 with near-fatal levels of meth in his system. Australian surf heroes Gary Elkerton and two-time world champion Tom Carroll each wrote autobiographies (2012 and 2013, respectively) that chronicled their own severe under-the-radar drug habits.

In 2010, three-time world champion Andy Irons—whose own issues with drug abuse had been a poorly-kept secret within the surf community for years—was discovered dead in a Texas hotel room, apparently of a heart attack, though toxicology reports revealed the presence of cocaine and methadone in Irons' blood. Dozens of well-known surfers have meanwhile been convicted on drug charges, including Steve Bigler, Donald Takayama, Les Potts, Robbie Page, Nick Wood, Maurice Cole, Buttons Kaluhiokalani, and Anthony Ruffo. Still other surfers, most notably big-wave chargers Peter Mel and Darryl Virostko, came out after the fact to admit that they had drug problems. (Virostko, the three-time winner of the Maverick's Big-Wave Contest, was high on meth for many of his greatest surf sessions.)

The surf industry's intermittent and often hypocritcal response to drug use within the sport began with a 1967 Surfer magazine editorial noting that "no real athlete uses stimulants to improve performance," and that "the fad of pot smoking will pass from the scene." Other surf-world antidrug gestures over the years have included opinion pieces from famous surfers (including world champions Midget Farrelly and Fred Hemmings), world pro tour surf contests (the Drug Offensive Surfmasters in Australia), print ad campaigns (most notably by the Chart House restaurant chain in the early '90s), and even antidrug clubs (surf journalist Derek Hynd formed On the NOD—Not on Drugs—in 1986).

By the mid-'80s, as the surfing industry began to grow into what would soon be a multibillion-dollar interest, the occasional celebratory drug references were all but excised from the surf media; if drug use was mentioned at all, as surf journalist Steve Barilotti pointed out, it was with "a muffled puritanical tone." World pro tour organizers in 1990 voted for drug testing, at the discretion of individual event directors, but no tests were ever performed, in part because competitors insisted that tour officials and judges be tested as well. In 2012, in the wake of Irons' death, the Association of Surfing Professionals again made a push toward drug testing, but again the effort was half-hearted.

Occupying a vast middle ground between drug-related catastrophes and pieties is the generally unacknowledged majority of surfers for whom drug use is—or was—in some way valuable. In 1994, not long after kicking a 15-year heroin addiction, Hawaiian surf legend Jeff Hakman allowed that "the best memories of my surfing career" had come while riding Honolua Bay with his friend Jock Sutherland when both were high on LSD. In 1990, Australian pro Cheyne Horan came out in favor of legalizing drugs altogether, while 1998 longboard world champion Joel Tudor supported legalizing marijuana. California stylist Rob Machado, 1995 world pro tour runner-up, allowed that "down on the beach, you're in the most beautiful environment, relaxing, surfing, having a great time, [and] if someone was going to break out a joint, you're in the best place to do it." When Surfer magazine did a quick online poll in 2002, asking readers to respond to the question, "Surf and weed . . . who likes it?" five were against, 11 were neutral, and 20 were enthusiastically supportive.

Thai Stick: Surfers, Scammer, and the Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade, published by Columbia University Press, was released in 2013.