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Photograph by Sarah Boyum

Why Athletes Are Penning Sponsorship Deals With Marijuana Brands

Despite the risk of losing other sponsors, local adventure athletes have partnered with Wana Brands, Mary's Medicinals, and other cannabis companies.

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After training, Boulder ultramarathoner Flavie Dokken swigs some water, massages her calves, and pops a marijuana-infused candy into her mouth. Getting edible-induced pain relief has been part of her post-workout routine for years. Posting an image of the gumdrops on Instagram? That’s for her new endorsement deal.

Dokken, who signed a contract with Boulder’s Wana Brands in January, is one of a growing number of local athletes inking sponsorship deals with cannabis companies. The first partnership came in 2016, when Denver’s Black Rock Originals teamed up with freestyle skier Tanner Hall to design its SkiBoss line of grinders and rolling papers. Others followed suit: Colorado companies Wana, Mary’s Medicinals, MJFitNut, and more are paying extreme- and adventure-sports stars to pitch their products.

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Jocks and Mary Jane make a logical couple. A number of athletes use CBD, the non-psychoactive component of cannabis, to relieve pain caused by rigorous training—a University of Kentucky study found it reduces inflammation—while some say THC, the element that gets you high, narrows their focus while competing. Unlike players in power leagues such as the NFL, adventure athletes rarely have to worry about drug tests because of events’ limited budgets. (Also, organizers probably assume you have to be stoned to want to run 100 miles.)

4.20: Length, in miles, of the Sativa route, one of the options for the two-month-old Runner’s High Run Club. The group unites weed enthusiast running junkies every Thursday at 6 p.m. at Denver’s Native Roots Dispensary. (Discounts are available to all members.)

Some competitors do eschew weed out of health concerns. (A New England Journal of Medicine study showed CBD increased the risk of depression and schizophrenia.) But the largest barrier to cannabis-athlete partnerships is other sponsors. Avery Collins, a Steamboat Springs ultrarunner who signed with Boulder dispensary the Farm in 2016, estimates at least half of ultrarunners use marijuana—but far fewer are comfortable endorsing it, fearing other brands might drop them.

As the pro marijuana contingent grows, however, the drug’s stigma dissipates. Sponsorships are part of societal normalization, says Ricardo Baca, founder of Denver cannabis PR firm Grasslands. Essentially, cannabis companies believe sponsored athletes make their products seem more acceptable.

Recent actions in the sporting world suggest marijuana is becoming more mainstream: The NFL has proposed studying pot as a pain management tool, and the World Anti-Doping Agency recently removed CBD from its list of banned substances. These moves should help spark higher opinions of cannabis athletes and their sponsors.

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