The following article is a written adaptation of an episode of Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism, Slate’s podcast about companies in the news and how they got there.
In the 1990s, marijuana got more mainstream, aided by the rise of weed-friendly hip-hop stars like Snoop Dogg, who brought weed to the forefront of the culture in a way that it hadn’t been since the ’70s. High Times settled into a formula that worked for it. It involved celebrity interviews with weed enthusiasts like Woody Harrelson, outraged commentary mostly about government hypocrisy, and, most important, a near-religious passion for the cannabis plant. Former editor-in-chief Malcolm MacKinnon says he made sure that every issue of High Times featured lavish photos of weed. “People love to look at the buds,” he says. “People called it bud porn. It’s that close-up shot. People can imagine smoking it. And that’s what we’re looking for. For a long time, when we put a bud on a cover, we could always expect that to sell, but we had to get more creative as the years went on.”
At one point, MacKinnon, who snapped many of these bud photos himself, became obsessed with the thought of photographing buds in front of Mount Rushmore—“not the brightest idea,” he says. “When I got out of the car, went up on a ridge, and was going to shoot buds right there with Mount Rushmore in the background, I swear to God, cops came out of everywhere trying to figure out what was I doing up there. So I left the buds at the top of the ridge and came back down. I had to talk to the cops for a half-hour. And then I said, ‘Jeez, I left my sweatshirt up there. Can I go back up and get it?’ Went back up there and got the buds and walked right by them with all the buds in my sweatshirt.”
A brief, anomalous chapter in High Times history happened in 2003, when a new publisher came aboard and decided, for no clear reason, to turn High Times into a highbrow literary magazine and to name a new editor in chief: John Buffalo Mailer. The new publisher was friends with Norman Mailer, and John Buffalo Mailer was his 25-year-old son.
MacKinnon says “John was out of his league. He had very little publishing experience. He didn’t have any real respect for marijuana at all that anybody could see. And the features they’d put in the magazine were just horrible. The covers during that time—I mean, the magazine nearly fell on its ass. We lost a third of the circulation in nine months.”
This experiment with respectability was abandoned, and order was restored in less than a year. John Buffalo Mailer exited the scene, while MacKinnon stayed on board. And High Times returned with a marijuana-focused cover that reassured old-school fans: The buds are back. The business got back on its feet and continued to make money through subscriptions and through ads for things like smoking and growing paraphernalia.
As some states began to legalize pot in the 2010s, High Times took advantage by running lucrative in-person events like its Cannabis Cup, a competition to see who can grow the best strain of weed. High Times had for many years held the event in Amsterdam, where the law was much less of a problem, but now it could start holding events like this in places like Colorado. These events became a huge profit center for High Times, and legalization in general seemed like a boon for the magazine—at first. But as cannabis became of more and more interest to traditional capitalists—not charming, roguish drug smugglers like the magazine’s founder, Tom Forçade—the organization was forced to answer some tough questions about its own identity. “How do you redefine High Times if you’re no longer outlaws, if you’re just championing the industry itself rather than the people and the activists who got us there?” MacKinnon says. “Is High Times a business magazine, or are we still appealing to the people who just absolutely love marijuana?”
More and more venture capital was entering the cannabis business, and eventually the money men came for High Times itself. After Tom Forçade’s death in 1978, High Times was controlled mostly by Forçade’s relatives and by Michael Kennedy, a high-powered countercultural lawyer who’d been around the magazine since the early days, overseeing its business dealings when he wasn’t representing clients like Timothy Leary and Huey P. Newton. Kennedy died in 2016. The next year, the remaining stakeholders sold controlling interest in High Times in a deal that valued it at $70 million. The buyer was an investment group led by a man named Adam Levin, who had previously been known in part for buying up porn brands like Penthouse and Girls Gone Wild.
Levin “had no street cred” in the cannabis community, according to Ben Schreckinger, a reporter with Politico who wrote a piece about High Times. “He comes across as having sharp elbows, as being a bit of a shark who’s eyeing the angles and looking to maximize profitability. And that somewhat predictably has shaved longtime fans of the magazine and probably even more so longtime staffers.”
Schreckinger says that last year, during a webinar designed to convince people to invest in his new vision for High Times, Levin adopted an unusual presentation strategy. “Adam Levin was giving what was a relatively traditional investor pitch, talking about profit and loss, projected revenues, the value of the brand—and then paused mid-webinar and hit a bong. And that is not something you usually see on an investor webinar. He was trying to show people that he loves weed, that he’s someone who is consistent with the ethos of this magazine, that he’s not just somebody who has no connection to marijuana who’s coming in trying to make a buck. I’m not sure how much that display did to allay those concerns, but he was clearly making an effort there to do that.”
Pretty soon after taking control of High Times, Levin started talking about radically expanding the scope of High Times’ business, turning it into much more than just a magazine and taking the company public. “It was initially supposed to list on the Nasdaq in 2017,” Schreckinger says. “Here we are four years later, and High Times is not trading on the Nasdaq.”
High Times isn’t publicly listed anywhere. You can buy shares in the company directly from a High Times website using a credit card, but there’s not much you can do with those shares if you buy them. Unless and until High Times actually IPOs, there’s no liquid market. And High Times can’t IPO until it updates its financial information with the Securities and Exchange Commission, something it hasn’t done in two years. What’s more, its last SEC filing in June of 2019 wasn’t a rosy picture. The company said it had lost nearly $12 million over the previous six months and had accumulated a total deficit of more than $100 million. “Until those updated financials get posted, we really won’t know what’s been going on there for a very long time,” Schreckinger says.
High Times didn’t respond to our emails asking about its financial status or when it expects to post updated information. Ben Schreckinger reported that at least one High Times board member, former Mexican President Vicente Fox, resigned over concerns about the delayed IPO. Meanwhile, High Times continues to solicit money from regular folks. The idea is that you wouldn’t be investing in a mere magazine; you’d be investing in a new cannabis empire—High Times branded weed, High Times branded weed stores, High Times branded weed delivery services.
For the investment group led by Adam Levin, the real appeal of High Times isn’t its subscriber base. It’s the familiar name and the authentic history with weed that the name stands for, and, of course, the opportunity to slap that name on all manner of revenue-generating stuff. High Times doesn’t seem to have plans to actually grow weed, but it’s already put its name on some licensed High Times cannabis products. And according to the High Times website, there are four High Times branded stores now open in California, along with a High Times weed delivery service that’s available in the L.A. and San Francisco metro areas.
As weed becomes legal in more and more states, with newbies wandering into pot stores for the first time wondering what to buy, it’s easy to see why having a national, recognizable brand might be a real asset. But according to Chris Walsh, the CEO and founding editor of MJBiz, a cannabis trade publication, no one has totally figured out how to make brands work when it comes to weed: “I just think that the story has not been told yet about branding and the development of brands in this industry. It’s still not to the sophistication level of other industries. I remember when we started, walking into a dispensary and the marijuana-infused brownie was in saran wrap with a little sticker on it that said ‘brownie’ that someone wrote on it. That was packaging back then. That was branding.”
Part of the problem is weed’s murky legal status. This isn’t just a problem for High Times; it’s a problem for everyone in the industry. It’s tough to do business with banks if you’re involved with marijuana, given that selling pot is a crime at the federal level. And it’s tough to do business across state lines when the regulatory situation varies so widely. A licensed product that’s approved in one state might not be approved in another. Still, there have been attempts to develop brands. Some take an organic approach, placing products on shelves and hoping that over time consumers will come to recognize the brand and trust its quality. Others have tried to jump-start brands by drawing on celebrity. For instance, actor Seth Rogen has a cannabis brand called Houseplant.
But High Times occupies a unique perch in this world. It’s an established brand that’s been synonymous with weed for nearly 50 years, bravely proclaiming its love for pot back when selling a joint could get you jail time instead of VC funding. The question is whether that long history and hard-earned authenticity will matter to today’s cannabis shopper. Walsh says, “I have no idea how well it will work and how well that brand name resonates with today’s consumers. Is it a niche? Is it the 60-year-old hippie who’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to go for that High Times stuff’? Or is it going to resonate with today’s consumers, which are soccer moms and professionals coming home on a Friday night and getting some pre-rolled joints or an edible or a cannabis-infused beverage instead of a bottle of wine or maybe with a bottle of wine? I don’t know.”
The old, outlaw appeal of weed, a countercultural vice, a way to stick it to the man, is disappearing, replaced by a much more mainstream, normie vibe. Walsh says newer consumers “don’t really connect as much with that culture. So that’s why you have some dispensaries and recreational shops that look like an Apple Store. They look like a high-end, sleek, modern facility that you walk into and you feel comfortable, it doesn’t really scream marijuana.”
Chris Walsh says U.S. cannabis revenue will soon be on par with the total revenue of American craft beer. There’s no doubt that there are piles of money to be made for anyone who can figure out how to build a huge cannabis brand—the Sierra Nevada or even the Budweiser of weed. But for people who were smoking, and in some cases getting arrested, back during prohibition, and especially for minorities who got targeted disproportionately by police, the rush to corporatize cannabis, mostly spearheaded by rich white people in suits, can rub the wrong way. That’s certainly true for the classic rock stoners who read High Times back in the day. It’s not even clear that the brand will still appeal to them now that the company wants to transform itself from a band of merry outlaws into a VC-backed retail empire.
Malcolm MacKinnon, who left the company around the time Adam Levin came in, thinks there’s a fundamental conflict when High Times wants to cover the world of pot and also be a player in it. He says people like him get resentful when they watch others waltz into the new world of cannabis with no appreciation for the old one. “What really annoys most of us is people calling themselves pioneers in the industry, when perhaps they’ve only been in it for three years. A lot of people don’t even realize the amount of effort and the amount of danger we put ourselves into in trying to get this plant legalized.”