Gnarly Birthday, High Times!

Forty years in, can an outlaw magazine survive the mainstreaming of pot?

High times.
Legalizing bud might like, really bum out High Times, man.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez Jaramillo. Photos by Thinkstock

In 1974, a volatile, unhinged drug smuggler named Tom Forçade published the first issue of High Times magazine. Legend holds he intended it as a one-off parody of Playboy, with photos of cannabis buds swapped in where the naked co-eds would be. (Legend also holds he conceived the idea while huffing from a tank of nitrous oxide.) The debut cover of High Times teased stories like “A Lady Dealer Talks” and “Hemp Paper Reconsidered.” Inside were market quotes for illicit drug prices and a prescient look at the medical benefits of weed.

Forçade shot himself inside his New York City apartment in 1978. The magazine he’d founded had by then won a steady readership and had begun to publish monthly. It still does. The November issue of High Times will, somewhat improbably, mark the publication’s 40th anniversary. A commemorative book, High Times: A 40-Year History of the World’s Most Infamous Magazine—a slightly slapped-together anthology of cover images, old celebrity interviews, and essays from High Times employees—goes on sale this week.

I first encountered High Times as a teen, when a high school pal bought an issue at a newsstand. He’d hoped its botany tips would fill out the spindly weed plants he was growing in his bedroom closet. He bought a few more issues over the next few months, and we’d flip through them to admire the gargantuan bongs, ogle the bikini-clad tokers, and catch a faint whiff of freak culture. But other than as a punch line to lame, weed-themed jokes, my only interaction with High Times in recent years has been via the New York Media Softball League, where the Bonghitters are a perennial powerhouse. This past summer on a field in Central Park, after they’d demolished the squad I was playing for, they sang “Take Me Out to the Bong Game”—a subtle reworking of the old standard—and then invited us back to their dugout to smoke us all up. I took a teensy hit, mostly just to say I had. Their weed was so fricking gnarly that I nearly lost my shizz before I reached the subway. (The Bonghitters went on to beat the Wall Street Journal for the 2014 NYMSL crown. No word on whether Rupert Murdoch joined for the postgame toke.)

When I noticed that High Times was moving into its fifth decade, I couldn’t help but wonder: Softball prowess aside, what does the magazine stand for these days? It had always been the place where dopers gathered to gaze at photos of 9-foot-tall plants and truncheon-sized joints; to advertise their homemade pipeware; and, not least, to flip their collective bird at the man. This was a community of outlaws. A countercultural listening post. But lately weed doesn’t feel all that countercultural. And fewer weed smokers self-identify as outlaws. Marijuana is completely legal in two states, medicinally kosher in several more, and pervasive almost everywhere you go. The editorial board of the New York Times, no less, has decreed we must legalize it, not criticize it, yeah-eahh. Does the world still need High Times when square-ass Slate is running vape reviews?

The headquarters of the Trans-High Corporation—parent company of High Times—are on the ninth floor of a nondescript building in midtown Manhattan. They do not smell like ganja. They resemble the offices of any other smallish magazine (it has about 25 employees), though you might notice the occasional bong perched atop a high shelf. Trans-High’s official policy does not permit weed-smoking in the workplace, but I have a powerful hunch that this edict meets with less than 100 percent compliance.

On a recent afternoon, I sat down with editor-in-chief Dan Skye and senior cultivation editor Danny Danko to check in on High Times as it enters middle age. Skye has floated around the magazine since its start. A handsome, gray-haired fellow in running sneakers, jeans, and an untucked oxford shirt, he’s held nine different titles as he’s ascended the ranks. Danko is younger, in his early 40s, and shorter and squirrelier. He says he landed his first job with the magazine by hanging around, breaking down boxes, answering phones, and making clear that he “knew where to get the best weed.”

As Skye and Danko tell it, High Times has been up and down over the years. There was an early dalliance with cocaine as an editorial subject, but it soon became evident that this alienated the magazine’s core pothead demographic. (Relax: Mushrooms were still cool.) In a slightly bizarre turn of events in the early 2000s—a “foul epoch,” in the words of former editor Chris Simunek—a new leadership team featuring Norman Mailer’s 25 year-old son, John Buffalo Mailer, attempted to reshape the magazine into a highbrow journal of literature and opinion. They banned weed from the cover and got rid of the bud centerfolds. A 2003 New York Times story about Mailer’s seizing of the reins described his “limited journalistic resume” and reported that he planned to “round out the magazine with voices opposed to marijuana use, including people who think pot has ruined their lives”— which was awfully disquieting to longtime readers who were, like, really into pot. “It was a betrayal of our audience,” says Skye. Subscriptions and ad sales plummeted. High Times was in peril.

By January 2005, the magazine had righted ship with a cover announcing “The Buds Are Back!” and “30 Pages of Pot Pix”—over a photo of some dank looking Strawberry Cough. Ever since, editors know to honor the proven formula. There have been many celebrities on High Times covers over the years—James Franco, Woody Harrelson, Frances McDormand, Oliver Stone—but nowadays they’re required to hold a joint, or a bong, or a handful of nugs in their cover shots. “I tell them I can take the people off the cover but I can’t take the weed off,” says Skye. “Our best newsstand sellers are just giant close-ups of buds.”

The magazine has never been afraid to be servicey. It once offered tips on how to smuggle bales of pot aboard your recreational yacht. Now it’s more likely to advise you on the finer points of running a high-yield growing operation. The ads in High Times’ pages are also geared to the more practical needs of its readership: grow lights, plant food packs, and synthetic urine for beating drug tests. Many of the agricultural products on offer are clearly intended for industrial-scale use.

The audience is, of course, also chock-full of what Skye describes as “bud connoisseurs.” These are the people who read to learn about the latest strains and cutting-edge means of smoking. Skye and Danko raved to me about “dabbing”—some sort of butane-infused oil vape dealie that results in terrifyingly potent lungfuls and, in Skye’s words, “a huge high”—which I didn’t fully understand and am unlikely to try soon. The metric-ton growers and these finicky smokers seem to peacefully coexist within the High Times universe, in the same manner that vineyard owners and snobby sippers do within the pages of Wine Spectator.

Skye is not at liberty to reveal print circulation numbers. (Trans-High Corp. is privately held, having passed after Forçade’s death to a scattered group of stakeholders that includes several longtime employees.) But he says the business has held relatively flat during a challenging time for print media. They put out more than 100,000 copies of each issue and Skye claims there is a “five-to-one passaround rate.” The website has been growing quickly, and is up to 5 million unique visitors per month, according to Skye. (Industry measure comScore puts at about 1.2 million visitors last month, though comScore regularly reports numbers below those that websites generate internally.) Meanwhile, live events have become a major source of revenue. The High Times Cannabis Cup—previously held in places like Amsterdam but increasingly held in places like Denver—functions not only as a blazed-out party but also as a trade show for serious growers and retailers.

But I had to ask: Is the dawning of the age of legal weed a boon or a bane for the magazine? Can an outlaw publication still thrive when it’s celebrating good, clean, lawful recreation? What happens to High Times when it starts to look more like Cigar Aficionado?

For one, there’s a sense of vindication. Though he hasn’t always been thrilled with the way the New York Times covers marijuana, Danko welcomed the editorial board’s decision to endorse legalization. “I was emotional when that came out,” he says. “I’m a New York Times subscriber. It was like having a parent give you approval.”

As for the loss of the outlaw badge? Skye and Danko rush to point out that many non-violent pot offenders still languish in prisons. That there are regular raids on growing facilities. That weed remains illegal in most states, and that even small-time possession can incur severe legal punishment in some jurisdictions. They won’t forget the struggle anytime soon—both of them still use noms de plume to shield themselves. “I have kids, I coached little league,” says Skye, who remembers the D.A.R.E. era in the 1990s when he was deathly afraid to be outed as a High Times-er. “It was dicey.”

Skye argues that the disappearing stigma around weed is a boost to the magazine, as people become less afraid to subscribe or even to visit the website. “They used to be scared they’d get on ‘a list,’ ” he chuckles. The rise of legal pot has also intrigued some new demographics—in particular seniors who never or rarely smoked in their youth but are now curious to get back in the game. For his part, Danko has high hopes for High Times’ potential to ride the wave of the legal cultivation industry. “We’re the strongest brand in a growing market. We cover everything from seed to sale. There’s a lot to be done around organics—we look at it as ‘farm-to-bong.’ ”

The mainstreaming of pot pleases me. I don’t want to be an outlaw, I just want to get blazed sometimes. Though I don’t care to deep-dive into the details of hash versus oils, indica versus sativa, or dabbing versus edibles, pot connoisseurship is no more silly a hobby than homebrewing beer, and I’m glad the magazine is educating its audience and fighting the good fight. Whenever a 16-year-old takes his first toke and feels an urge to learn more about the wacky world of weed; whenever a grower needs to check out the latest cultivation techniques; whenever anyone feels a sudden and deep affinity for Tommy Chong; really, whatever fate lies hidden in the hazy clouds of marijuana’s cultural future, High Times will be there, and I wish them well.

On my way out the door, Skye shook my hand and handed me, along with a pile of recent issues, something in a small, plastic baggie. I took it home, refusing to let my journalistic ethics harsh my mellow. It was fricking gnarly.