At first glance the former professional cyclists Floyd Landis and David Zabriskie–both kicked out of the game after confessing to using performance-enhancing drugs–seem like imperfect (at best) advocates for the benefits of marijuana. Yet today they’re announcing their new business: topical creams laced with the active ingredients of weed, aimed at athletes. The pair are selling a variety of marijuana-infused products to Colorado dispensaries under the Floyd’s of Leadville brand.
But it … kind of makes sense? After all, Landis and Zabriskie certainly know what it’s like to use small amounts of a chemical substance to improve performance, recover faster after a hard effort, or reduce the pain of exertion or crashes. “Our market is athletes who want to relax or feel good after a workout,” says Landis, who won the 2006 Tour de France and then was stripped of the title after he tested positive for testosterone a few days after the race ended. “Some people say it helps with their focus and attention. For me, it’s for afterwards to help mitigate pain.”
Either way, it’s a strange twist in Landis’ life. He says he has been using oils and creams laced with cannabidiol–a main chemical component of weed–to ease the pain from a hip he had replaced in 2006. Cannibidiol, in some forms, has shown some evidence of relieving pain and inflammation associated with arthritis and cancer, according to federal officials. (Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the compound responsible for marijuana’s mind-altering effects.)
For his part, Landis admits he has had a difficult time since his unsuccessful attempt at a cycling comeback. He served a two-year suspension that ended in 2009, went public with details about former teammate Lance Armstrong’s doping program in 2011, and since then has waged a legal fight against Armstrong as part of a multimillion-dollar federal whistleblower lawsuit. “I don’t have mainstream opportunities,” Landis says. “I’m not going to work at a normal job. It brings too much baggage with it. This is something I know how to do, something I understand and an issue that needs attention.”
The Floyd’s of Leadville creams contain both THC and cannabidiol, but Landis says they’re similar to the testosterone creams he sometimes used during his five Tour de France rides in the early 2000s. “We take a transdermal substrate, a base that’s designed for administering hormones,” he says. “We add oil extracts of THC or CBD. It absorbs quickly into the bloodstream. It’s a lot faster than eating.”
Zabriskie, a former teammate of Landis who briefly wore the Tour de France’s yellow jersey in 2005, is the company’s creative director. He started using medical marijuana products about six months ago to combat pain from all his crashes over the years. “The more I learned the more I have come to respect its benefits,” he says, “especially given that it seems to be a safer alternative for many people who are suffering.”
Whether or not it actually works, it’s not crazy as a business model. Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia allow marijuana to be used for a variety of medical conditions. Fifteen additional states have enacted laws intended to allow access to CBD oil and/or high-CBD strains of marijuana, according to the National Institutes of Health.
So a few pro athletes are joining the pro-marijuana bandwagon. Former Baltimore Raven tackle Eugene Monroe said he wants the NFL to look at pot as an alternative to opioid pain relievers. Monroe donated $80,000 to medical marijuana research, and he recently invested in a Maryland medical pot company called Green Thumb Industries. And Tennessee Titans linebacker Derrick Morgan said this week that he wants the NFL to look at the possibility that CBD may protect the brain from damaging hits.
If those ideas seem confusing, that might be because society holds athletes to a strange double-standard when it comes to drugs and performance. “We have completely normalized doping in everyday American life,” says Mark Johnson, author of Spitting in the Soup: Inside the Dirty Game of Doping in Sports. “There’s Viagra for adult men, Adderall for toddlers, but at the same time, we are saying to athletes that we are going to hold you up to a different set of standards than everyone else. That’s a contradiction that fascinated me.”
It’s the morality of athletes taking drugs that bothers us, according to Johnson. Sports doping “has overtones of moral failure and corruption, even though taking EPO [erythropoietin, a blood oxygen-booster] under a doctor’s supervision is pretty safe compared to riding on a road with texting drivers.”
Johnson isn’t advocating a drug free-for-all in sports. But he notes that history continues to repeat itself. Recent revelations that the World Anti-Doping Agency failed to do anything for years when given evidence about Russia running a doping program for its Olympic team are similar to the warnings Landis gave US cycling officials. Federal investigators eventually picked up the case. “Floyd went to USA Cycling and said the sport is rotten to the core,” Johnson says. “But you have these national governing bodies who are torn because their job is to build the sport. Exposing dopers is antithetical to their objective.”
Landis’ long strange cycling trip might have a finale of sorts next month. He’s headed to France for the Tour kick-off on July 1, his first time back since he wore the race leader’s yellow jersey on the cobbles of the Champs D’Elysees in 2006. This time, he’ll just be a tourist. “I never started out racing bicycles thinking I was going to use drugs,” Landis says. “It was a decision I made, and a bad decision. If I could undo it, I would. This is something different. This is something that benefits a lot of people.” Sometimes it takes an imperfect advocate to deliver a complicated message.