Rob Van Dam emerges as a visionary in cannabis, wrestling, and life.
Rebel, Renegade, Revolutionary
Story Debbie Hall
In 2006, professional wrestler Rob Van Dam had just achieved the pinnacle of success. He became the champion of the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW), experiencing one of the most significant peaks of his career. He was riding high in more ways than one.
Van Dam’s meteoric rise soon came to a thundering crash. Later that year, while touring on the WWE and ECW wrestling circuits, Van Dam and his wrestling partner Sabu were pulled over by the police in Ohio for speeding. Van Dam never hid his love of cannabis and kept it out in the open. That night, like many nights in the past, the car reeked of cannabis.
“Back then, I was never careful, and I never thought about hiding my use of cannabis. I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong,” he says.
They were arrested for possession of cannabis, and Sabu urged Van Dam to inform the management of WWE about the arrest. “I told him he was crazy,” Van Dam says. “I got busted so many times before. Nobody ever found out, and I could still wrestle.”
This time was different, and it totally changed the course of Van Dam’s life.
By the time the two wrestlers arrived at the arena for the evening’s matches, having posted bail, the management and fans knew about the arrest. The media had reported the event, and Vince McMahon, the owner of WWE, was so furious he walked by the two wrestlers without speaking to them. “I knew that was not good, but we were prepared to wrestle,” says Van Dam.
Later that night, McMahon calmly informed Van Dam that he would be suspended for 30 days, urging him to get some rest. Van Dam would have to drop the WWE championship that evening in Philadelphia. He would still have to wrestle, knowing in advance that he’d have to concede the match.
“That was so heartbreaking. I let my fans and my wife down. I just felt that responsibility even though the marriage was faltering at the time,” he explains. “When I got beat, everyone just started booing and throwing their drinks into the ring. I was getting pelted, and I was devastated.”
The next night, Van Dam had to drop the ECW championship as well.
This life-altering episode, while distressing, actually brought Van Dam’s life to a better place. He found himself with renewed passion while becoming healthier and exploring new avenues. Eventually he got his wrestling career back on track.
Comic Books and Pumping Iron
Van Dam was born and raised in Battle Creek, Michigan, where he discovered his first love: comic books. He was a fanatic; he had to acquire every comic book with his favorite characters.
“They really captivated my mind,” says Van Dam. When he discovered wrestling in high school, he followed it with the same zeal as one of his comic book characters.
Fate intervened when, at the age of 15, he attended his first wrestling show by the World Wrestling Federation in Battle Creek’s Kellogg Center. A friend of the family and a wrestling insider who Van Dam knew as “Miss T” got him backstage access to greet the wrestlers as they exited the dressing rooms. He was so enthusiastic that Miss T encouraged him to begin lifting weights and to consider a career in professional wrestling.
In high school, coaches had encouraged Van Dam to be lean and mean. But he wanted to bulk up like the professional wrestlers he followed, and he switched to martial arts to gain flexibility and mobility.
He researched wrestling schools, and in December 1989, at the age of 18, Van Dam began to attend training sessions given by The Sheik, a top wrestler and box office attraction in the ’50s and ’60s. Van Dam was bagging groceries to make money for school and was thrilled he could train with The Sheik and still remain in Michigan. While Van Dam was considered smaller than most wrestlers, he demonstrated his desire, endurance, and ability. His parents were supportive, and Van Dam promised them that if wrestling didn’t work out in two years, he would change careers and attend college.
Talent and determination won him matches with wins in smaller venues. Van Dam understood marketing and would work out in the ring to gain fans. His popularity grew as he toured on the road as a wrestler.
“There was never a guarantee I would be successful, but at the time, I was having a lot of fun,” he says. “Still, there were many times I doubted myself even though others in the field would tell me I was impressive and had some great moves with my martial arts training.”
The first pivotal shift in his life occurred during an event in Jamaica when Van Dam was 21. The match hadn’t gone well, and afterward, a group of wrestlers blasted him, telling him that he would never make it. It was brutal for him; Van Dam sat on top of a truck by himself and sobbed. He tried to find inner peace with meditation but ripped himself apart instead.
Ironically, to fit in with the same group of wrestlers, Van Dam took his first hit of cannabis at age 21. He had been raised in an era of the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) programs, which emphasized that cannabis was a hallucinogen and gateway drug of addiction and despair. He really didn’t like it at first but soon discovered it helped with his anxiety, eased his physical discomfort, and increased his mental clarity. He also discovered that other athletes smoked it. Van Dam soon became a devotee of cannabis and never hid it from anybody, including bosses, fans, and the media. He would give interviews about the benefits of cannabis and refused to back down from expressing himself. A T-shirt was created with his famous catchphrase, “RVD 420 means I just smoked your ass.”
Others warned him that his openness with cannabis would get him into trouble and ruin his career. “People need to know the truth. It is not a dangerous drug, and it can help in so many ways,” says Van Dam. “There was so much misinformation.”
Along the way, Van Dam became more determined than ever to become the best wrestler he could. He continued to travel up to 300 days a year, including overseas. His world changed in 1998 when he became a wrestling superstar with the ECW and developed a devoted fan base.
Van Dam helped to change the face of wrestling when WWE bought the rights to ECW. He suggested that McMahon develop a pay-per-view called One Night Stand featuring a more interactive wrestling event in the style of ECW, complete with the throwing of chairs.
As Van Dam’s career accelerated, it became more of a business than a fun way to live life. His marriage suffered, he broke his ankle (his first injury), and he experienced scrutiny and suffered fines with his open use of cannabis.
In 2005, he needed knee surgery and was in rehab most of that year. Van Dam soon realized he was on a treadmill and didn’t know how to stop. He wanted to take more time off but instead went back into the ring, reaching an unbelievable peak of success before the arrest in 2006.
After the Fall
Once Van Dam moved past the devastation of the arrest, he discovered a life he could love living while advocating for cannabis and other issues. He continued to wrestle overseas, hosted a radio show, acted, entertained, and spoke on panels. While he did get divorced after 20 years, he would find love again. Van Dam was invited back to wrestle for the WWE, which named him the greatest star in ECW history in 2014.
Today, he sets his own schedule and does what he wants to do without the pressure to perform. Van Dam is happier than ever with his soul mate Katie Forbes in what he calls, “his best relationship ever.” He enjoys his life in Las Vegas, including helping others discover the benefits of CBD and cannabis. He has attempted to retire from wrestling, but he keeps getting pulled back into the ring. Van Dam admits he still loves it.