Flying Discs in the Age of Legal Cannabis

Should disc golf embrace the weed industry?

Josh Woods ~

Cover art
Image via sftravel and flydiscs.

In four days, cannabis will finally arrive in disc golf land.

Wait … what?

Okay, weed has been here from the beginning, but in less than a week, the 2019 San Francisco Open (SFO) will become the first premier disc golf tournament that has a major sponsor from the cannabis industry.

The SFO’s fledgling title sponsor AbsoluteXtracts (ABX) describes itself as “a homegrown Northern California company committed to providing patients with pure, safe, and potent cannabis concentrates.”

In an interview with Parked, SFO Tournament Director Sean Jack expressed his confidence in the decision: “We are always exploring opportunities to improve our event, even if it means wading into uncharted territory. By bringing in AbsoluteXtracts, we will be able to produce a better event while at the same time proving to our community that we are responsible stewards of competitive disc golf.”

After discussing the ABX sponsorship at length, the PDGA Board of Directors decided to sanction the SFO, despite some concerns. When asked about the possibility of other events seeking cannabis-related sponsors, Board President Justin Menickelli explained that the PDGA’s decision only covered the case of the SFO.

There is no official policy regarding marijuana sponsors at top-tier PDGA events, but Menickelli said, “I don’t think we would seek a sponsor of this nature for the National Tour or any of our Majors.”

Just Say No

Though voiced by a slim minority of disc golfers, there are reasons to question the SFO’s pot play. Some organizers worry about the sport’s image. Embracing legal weed companies may reinforce the negative stereotype of disc golfers as pot heads and stoners.

Other critics argue that incentivizing the sale of marijuana is a public health risk. The same corporations that brought us fast food, cigarettes and hard liquor may transform millions of Americans into heavy pot users.

Some disc golfers may protest on moral grounds. Several people have sounded off on social media about the illegal use of marijuana on disc golf courses. “Pot is illegal in my state,” some say. “And I don’t want it near my kids.”

But before we go to church on this issue, there are at least three other questions we should answer first:

1) What are the costs of continued prohibition?

2) Why are Americans changing their minds about marijuana?

3) Is a legal weed sponsor a good fit for disc golf?

Lock ’Em Up!

There is no neutral ground in the pot debate. Whether you support or reject legalization, your position comes with consequences. And the costs of prohibition have been great.

Over the decades, efforts to restrict the use of marijuana have cost the United States billions of dollars, stimulated a black market for pot and contributed to the country’s massive incarcerated population.

A study by the ACLU, based on FBI crime statistics, found that “between 2001 and 2010, there were over 8 million marijuana arrests in the United States, 88% of which were for possession.” Although blacks and whites have roughly the same usage rates, blacks are three-to-four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana (1) (2) (3).

An informed opinion of the SFO-ABX deal should account not only for what pot might do to disc golf, but also for what prohibition has done to millions of Americans.

Warming Up and Chilling Out

People are changing their minds about pot at an incredible rate. The percentage of Americans who support legalizing marijuana has more than doubled over the last twenty years. Two in three Americans now support legalization.

State laws are also changing quickly. Over the last quarter-century, 10 states have legalized recreational marijuana, while 22 states have legalized medical marijuana (4).

Public opinion about legalization

According to a new study, much of the shift in public opinion about cannabis can be attributed to people’s diminishing support for tough-on-crime initiatives. Americans are becoming less punitive and more … well, chill.

This is not some random finding. The researchers worked hard to rule out alternative possibilities. For instance, they found that the attitude change cannot be explained by people consuming more pot these days. Over the years, the increase in use has been nowhere near as great as the rise in support for legalization.

And it’s not about the old fogeys being replaced by a younger, hipper generation. “Both younger and older people developed more liberal views about the legalization of marijuana at a similar pace over the last 30 years” (5).

It’s not about where you live either. The great thaw in cannabis attitudes has occurred at equal rates in states that legalized marijuana and states that didn’t.

The list of non-factors goes on: “… the pace of change has been similar across political parties, religions, educational levels, racial and ethnic groups and gender. As politically polarized as the country may seem, when it comes to marijuana, Americans have been changing their attitudes together, as a nation” (5).

So, what’s happening?

According to the study, at least part of the underlying reason for the shift in attitudes is this: Americans are getting sick and tired of watching countless individuals, often black and Latino, being locked behind bars for the possession of marijuana. In short, it’s not about more Americans getting high. It’s about fewer Americans being jerks.

There are several obvious reasons to support an affiliation between disc golf and the marijuana industry—getting high and making money, for starters. But I imagine that many disc golfers see decriminalizing pot as a moral imperative, and not just a hedonistic one.

Changing attitudes to tough law enforcement

Cultural Convergence or Culture Clash?

This brings us to the final question: Are marijuana sponsors a good fit for disc golf?

For some observers, the answer is “no duh.”

But given the lack of research on disc golfers’ political and religious values, this is a tough one to answer decisively. Speculation on this topic usually turns to disc golf’s origin story as a “hippie sport.”

Disc golf and other lifestyle sports developed during the countercultural social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Some scholars argue that the norms, values and identities of lifestyle athletes differ from those of traditional athletes. Lifestyle sports are typically more creative, expressive, experimental and spontaneous than traditional sports.

These recreational preferences are thought to overlap with progressive thinking on politics, including marijuana use and decriminalization (7).

To begin investigating this theory, I contacted people involved with the SFO’s ABX sponsorship.

When asked if a cannabis company is a good fit for disc golf, Sean Jack said, “Disc golf is a fringe sport that has grown out of the efforts of many ‘free spirited’ people, who like to do things a little differently. We, as a sport, are in a position to turn a perceived weakness (players use cannabis) into a strength.”

Jack also mentioned the importance of normalizing pot: “Now is the time to take the leap and work through misconceived notions that cannabis is bad for the image of disc golf.”

Asked the same question, Disc Golf Pro Tour Director Steve Dodge offered this statement: “Our sport has a stigma of marijuana use that stems from the hippies that helped bring it along in the early days … I personally love the culture and value system that the early players brought to our sport. As cannabis becomes more widely accepted in society for its medicinal purposes, if we can help normalize people’s perceptions of marijuana through partnerships with companies in the cannabis industry that seems like a great thing.”

Justin Menickelli said that disc golfers tend to be open-minded on social issues, but also noted the increasingly professional demeanor of the sport’s top athletes. “The culture of disc golf has always been progressive. It remains progressive. But I think the perception of disc golfers as pot smoking hippies is in the rear-view mirror.”

While disc golf’s hippie era is behind us, America’s relationship to legal weed has just begun. The PDGA and other stakeholders are sure to face more tough, important questions soon. Given the rapid social and economic changes in the U.S., making the right choices now could influence the sport’s growth for years to come.

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Parked is underwritten in part by a grant from the Professional Disc Golf Association.

2 thoughts on “Flying Discs in the Age of Legal Cannabis

  1. Applause to the SFO and hopeful for Americans in general being more tolerant, less punitive and restrictive to the freedom of all.
    From a non-smoker

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Josh, I like your blog. But this piece, even if intended merely to convey your personal opinion, is way off the mark for an academician. You begin by asking if disc golf should embrace the weed industry, then spend the rest of the article saying, “YES! YES! YES!” There’s barely a whiff (pardon the pun) of nuance, and considerations to the contrary are given no more than straw man treatment.

    The fact that the PDGA, a worldwide sports governing body, sanctioned the SFO’s sponsorship by a cannabis company is both disappointing and surprising. Disappointing because no matter how much we say that disc golf has moved past its old stereotypes—in fact, it has not—this development stands to accentuate them. Disappointing because it ignores public health data relating to cannabis use by minors—note efforts to grow disc golf participation among younger generations. Disappointing because the PDGA touts disc golf as a family activity while tolerating a company that clearly does not put forward such a countenance. Disappointing because it stands to hurt the efforts of people trying to grow disc golf in their communities. How many city councils or similar governing bodies are going to enthusiastically make room for disc golf in public parks if disc golf industry is underwritten by the cannabis industry? How many courses may be pulled because of such underwriting? And surprising for all of the same reasons.

    Sean Jack, and maybe others, will see great short-run returns because of this sponsorship and others like it. In the short-run, disc golf will be hailed by a vocal minority for embracing the growing cannabis industry. The short-run returns will appear huge and they will be exciting. But if that embrace is a lingering one, the long-run will not be so sweet.

    Now, I’m not talking about marijuana legalization overall. What people do in private is up to them as long as they own the consequences of their behavior. I’m talking about disc golf embracing recreational vice as a way of “progressing.” The question is so much bigger and deeper than “fewer Americans being jerks.” You don’t have to believe me.

    Liked by 1 person

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