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    Saturday, February 14, 1998

    In Whistler being stoned is no big deal

     WHISTLER, British Columbia (AP) -- If you believe the waitress at Citta's bar, the real trouble is just beginning.
     "Can you imagine how many narcs are going to be in town now?" she groused to no one in particular.
     In one week, and all because of local Olympic hero Ross Rebagliati, the No. 1 ski resort in North America has become known as the hemp capital of the Western world.
     At least according to such headlines as "Up In Smoke" and "One Toke over the Line."
     Truth is, at this ultra-expensive spot 75 miles north of Vancouver -- a pack of cigarettes costs $6 and the Holiday Inn's cheapest room is $137 -- being stoned is no big deal.
     That was the case long before favorite son Rebagliati had his snowboarding gold medal yanked, then given back, after he tested positive for pot last week at the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.
     "There's so much marijuana in this town, he could have gotten exposed to it anywhere," said Citta bartender David Paul, who believes Rebagliati's explanation for trace amounts of the drug found in his urine.
     It was secondhand smoke, probably from his send-off party in January, Rebagliati said. He stopped smoking pot last April, when he learned he was going to the Olympics. But the rest of the town didn't follow suit.
     "I'd say about 80 percent of the people who live and work here smoke pot," Paul said. "British Columbia's known for its pot. Whistler is, too. But we'll be more on the map now for marijuana, that's for sure."
     Depending on whom you ask, this province's marijuana crop is four to 12 times more potent than average weed. Much of it is grown in greenhouses, a practice that started in the '60s when U.S. draft-dodgers fled to Canada.
     Mayor Hugh O'Reilly hired a public relations consultant to put the best possible spin on his city's notoriety.
     "I don't think it's going to hurt the town at all," he said. "This is a resort town. We're going to get plenty of business anyway. This just helps."
     Whistler may not need it. Twenty years ago, it was a garbage dump. Now the average home sells for $330,000. Developers manufactured it from whole cloth, constructing a central village with brick-lined streets and more than 200 ski runs boasting the most vertical downhills and high-speed lifts in the world.
     Zoning laws demand absolute conformity, meaning that everything from the Hard Rock Cafe to City Hall has a Bavarian-Alpine-meets-stucco look.
     The core population of 8,500 swells to 40,000 during peak snow season. On Friday, newly arrived Japanese skiers stood next to Swedish snowboarders in lift lines. Overnight snow had dumped 7 inches of new powder on the runs.
     Whistler seems to rake in more money than it knows what to do with. A new elementary school and high school have been built. Big hotel chains are coming in.
     "There's a lot of money to be made here," O'Reilly said. "Big corporations don't say 'Yes, this is a town full of potheads, let's build a resort there."'
     But the gold-medal flap does lend an entirely new meaning to Whistler's marketing slogan of "Higher Ground."
     The 26-year-old Rebagliati moved here a decade ago from his native Vancouver. He has no family in town except his father, Mark, who accompanied him to Nagano.
     Whistler, and most of Canada, howled when the International Olympic Committee pulled Rebagliati's medal after drug testing detected 17.8 nanograms per milliliter of THC, marijuana's active chemical.
     The country rejoiced when the medal was given back Thursday, following Canada's appeal. The appeals panel said the IOC couldn't take away the medal because it lacked an agreement with the International Ski Federation about marijuana use.
     Rebagliati thanked his friends and country for supporting him. And he made it clear he wasn't going to abandon his buddies.
     "I may hae to wear a gas mask from now on," he said.
     Catching pot smokers isn't a top priority for authorities. If a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer happens to see one, the joint is confiscated. As in many areas of the United States, possession of a small amount of marijuana is a misdemeanor.
     Smoking a joint, say residents like Paul, is the same as cracking open a Molson ale.
     Snowboarder Tim Ellis, nursing a cup of coffee late Friday morning at a bar, can remember only one day in the last 100 when he wasn't stoned while careening down the mountain.
     "This is just a big playground," he said, smiling. "People come here to blow off steam. Pot is everywhere."
     Even in the lift gondolas being pulled up the resort's two peaks: Blackcomb Mountain, which rises 7,494 feet, and Whistler Mountain, which tops 7,160 feet.
     "I was in a gondola yesterday and four guys lit up a big stogie," Ellis said. "What are you going to do, tell them to put it out? Not that I would, anyway."
     Graham Turner, manager of a snowboarding equipment shop, is a longtime Rebagliati friend and his self-appointed spokesperson.
     He plays down the whole thing. What's important, Turner says, is that Rebagliati achieved his life goal -- winning the men's giant slalom in a new Olympic sport.
     "He quit smoking a year ago," Turner said. "I think he should get a gold medal for that alone."