Joint Venture: The Story of High Times

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S1: Colin Manley grew up in a well-connected Arizona family. Her great grandfather started a hospital, her grandfather was a politician who ran for governor. And then there was her cousin, Tom. He was also a mover and shaker, albeit of a different sort.

S2: He would make things happen that would usually take people 10 years and he would do it in one year. He was just an executer with passion and he was also a fearless drug smuggler.

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S1: And Colleen’s cousin, Tom FACA, made his fortune in illicit drugs and then started a magazine called High Times about illicit drugs.

S2: We’ve got to remember, cannabis was highly illegal. So there are a lot of people in our family that weren’t real happy about what he was doing.

S1: Tom FACA died while Colleen was still young. But growing up, she found there were perks that came with being related to him.

S2: It was the coolest thing. People would find out that I was even connected to high times and I felt like I was a movie star.

S1: As Colleen got older and began to play a bigger role on the corporate side of the family owned magazine. The perks continued

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S2: the board meetings of the olden days. They were incredible. Sometimes for lunch there’d be like a cannabis cake or something like that.

S1: A few years ago, Colleen’s family sold its controlling stake in high times to an outside investment group, and Colleen recently resigned her position on the board of directors to focus on developing a movie about her drug smuggling magazine found in cousin. Meanwhile, the New York Times owners are trying to do something very different with the brand.

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S2: It used to be a magazine. Now it’s an empire and complete empire.

S1: High times. Once the tie dyed Bible for cannabis aficionados and we curious teens is trying to transition into a retail conglomerate, operating stores and selling high times branded pot. But the culture clash between the old school stoners and the new breed of cannabis executives seems like it’s harshing a lot of people’s mellows right now.

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S2: There’s a lot of bitterness. There’s a lot of people who probably are angry, who think we’ve sold out. I know that because I hear about it for me as a family member of the company. It hurts me greatly.

S1: How did the National Geographic of Ganja get its start? Will it lose credibility as the people in charge stop being countercultural felons and start being financed pros? What does a successful cannabis brand look like anyway? I’m Seth Stevenson. Welcome to Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism. Today on the show, Joint Venture, The Story of High Times. Malcolm McKinnon worked at High Times magazine for 25 years, holding nine different titles, including editor in chief. He says High Times owes its near five decade existence to one man.

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S3: It all started with Tom Foresighted. He was a true visionary.

S1: Tom Farsad was a man of contradictions. He studied business at the University of Utah in the 1960s, but simultaneously got involved with an underground socialist newspaper there. He later enlisted in the Air National Guard, learning to fly. But after he left the military, he put his pilot training to use in drug smuggling operations facade and a lot of charisma and a lot of style.

S3: He was a small guy. He wasn’t a big guy at all, but he was a tremendous presence. He dressed himself like something out of a Clint Eastwood movie with a broad brimmed hat, always wearing black, always wearing sunglasses

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S1: at 28 years old, having just successfully smuggled two million dollars worth of cash for a decided to do something slightly unexpected with the proceeds, he made a magazine. In the summer of 1974, the first issue of high times appeared along with articles like A Lady Dealer Talks and Hemp Paper Reconsidered. The magazine featured market quotes for current drug prices and a centerfold photo of a luscious marijuana plant for sale distributed that first issue largely through a network of drug dealers he’d done business with.

S3: This must be a one time thing, and it’s just absolutely everybody wanted it, so it was reprinted three more times

S1: after this triumph for Assad put together more high Times issues. The magazine had a growing and very devoted readership.

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S3: People who wanted to grow, people who wanted to buy, people wanted to travel to the places that have the very, very best part in the world. That’s who High Times appealed to.

S1: Early covers featured Bob Marley, Truman Capote and Andy Warhol. There was even an interview with the Dalai Lama. But while his magazine was taking off, Tom FACA was suffering. According to his cousin, Colin Manley, he was bipolar. And in 1978, in the midst of deep depression, he shot himself.

S3: No one’s really sure exactly what went down prior to that incident, but he was a very depressed state, from what I understand.

S1: Some friends ruled Tom Prasad’s ashes into a joint and smoked it at the top of the World Trade Center. There was a feeling that he’d left behind a legacy and also maybe some treasure.

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S3: There’s this rumor that there’s still a refrigerator full of money buried somewhere in Connecticut, always hearing that rumor. So, I mean, he tossed a lot of money around and he funded a lot of projects that coincided with his view of the world.

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S1: It’s not clear in what direction Tom Farsad would have taken high times had he stayed at a town. The magazine went on without him. But as the decade turned, Malcom McKinnon says High Times lost its focus on weed, becoming enamored with the new drug on the scene.

S3: They made a mistake like everybody else in the 80s by covid delving into cocaine a little bit too heavily. We had covers and centerfolds that were devoted to cocaine use, and the magazine kind of started to fade in the 80s.

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S1: How did you write the ship after that?

S3: Well, the rush back to marijuana. You rush back to what got you there. That was what we did. We went back to marijuana on a grand scale, covered what we know.

S1: In the 1990s, as high times refocused on its core competency, marijuana itself 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 time settled into a formula that works 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 plants. Malcolm says he made sure that every issue of high times featured lavish photos of weed.

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S3: People love to look at the Buddz people call blood porn. You know, it’s that close up shop people can imagine smoking it, but that’s what we’re looking for for a long time. When we put a butt on a cover, we could always expect that to sell, but we had to get more creative as the years went on.

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S1: At one point, Malcolm, who snapped many of these Bud photos himself, became obsessed with the thought of photographing buds in front of Mount Rushmore.

S3: Not the brightest idea, but I got out of the car and went up on a ridge. It was going to shoot Buzz right there with my 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 to the top of the ridge, came back down and had to talk to the cop for a half hour. And then I said, jeez, I left my sweatshirt up there, kind of go back up and get it, went back up there and got the buds, walked right by them with all the buttons and my sweatshirt.

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S1: 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. Maler, the new publisher, was friends with Norman Mailer, the famed author John Buffalo. Mailer was Norman Mailer. Twenty five year old son

S3: 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 put in the magazine were just horrible. The covers during that time I read the magazine nearly fell on its ass. We lost a third of the circulation in nine months.

S1: This experiment with respectability was abandoned and order was restored in less than a year. John Buffalo Mailer exited the scene while Malcolm 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 it for many years held the event in Amsterdam, where the law was much less of a problem. But now a good 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 Tom Facade, the organization was forced to answer some tough questions about its own identity.

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S3: 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? So this is a transition for hard times. Is High Times a business magazine, or we still are appealing to the people who just absolutely love marijuana.

S1: More and more venture capital was entering the cannabis business and eventually the money men came for high times itself. Did I Levin have street cred in the cannabis community when he took over?

S4: At times I don’t Levin had no street cred that I’m aware of in the cannabis community.

S1: More on that when we come back. After Tom facades death in 1978, high times was controlled mostly by facades 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 Newton. Kennedy died in 2016. The next year, the remaining stakeholder sold controlling interest in high times in a deal that valued it at 70 million dollars. The buyer was an investment group led by a man named Adam Levine, who’d previously been known in part for buying up porn brands like Penthouse and Girls Gone Wild. Ben Schreckengost is a reporter with Politico who wrote a piece about High Times and Adam Levin.

S4: He comes across as having sharp elbows, as being a bit of a shark who’s eyeing the angles and looking to maximize profitability in that, somewhat predictably, has shaved longtime fans of the magazine and probably even more so long time staffers.

S1: Ben 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.

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S4: 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 is 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.

S1: Did he sound high?

S4: I can’t say that he sounded high, though.

S1: Ben says that pretty soon after taking control of high times, Levin started talking about radically expanding the scope of high times as business, turning it into much more than just a magazine and taking the company public.

S4: It was initially supposed to list on the Nasdaq in twenty seventeen. Here we are four years later and high times is not trading on the Nasdaq.

S1: 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 SEC, something it hasn’t done in two years. What’s more, its last SEC filing in June of twenty nineteen wasn’t a rosy picture. The company said it had lost nearly 12 million dollars over the previous six months and had accumulated a total deficit of more than one hundred million dollars

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S4: until those updated financials get posted. And we really won’t know what’s been going on there for a very long time. So hopefully that person and people can take a look under the hood.

S1: High times didn’t respond to our emails asking about its financial status or when it expects to post updated information. Ben Schreckengost 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. In a video posted at High Times, investor Dotcom, an executive, lays out a beautiful future for the company.

S4: I see hundreds of retail stores across the country in the coming years. We can take our forty five year history. You can create a space that people want to come visit. Along with that comes the delivery as we go market by market. So I welcome you to joining this ride

S5: into new verticals. Let’s change the world.

S1: 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 license, 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 MJ Biz, a cannabis trade publication, no one has totally figured out how to make brands work when it comes to weed.

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S6: 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, you know, the marijuana infused Brownie was in Saran Wrap with a little sticker on it that said Brownie that someone wrote on it. Right. That was packaging back then that was branded.

S1: Part of the problem is weeds, 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 vary 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 can 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.

S6: I have no idea how well it’ll work and how well that brand name resonates with today’s consumers. Is it a niche? Is it the, you know, 60 year old hippie who’s like, yeah, I’m going to go for that high time 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.

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S1: 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 Normy vibe.

S6: The newer consumer, they don’t really connect as much with that culture. Right. 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. Doesn’t really scream marijuana.

S1: 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. This 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 corporatist 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 backed retail empire. And ex editor Malcolm McKinnon, who left the company around the time Adam Levin came in, thinks there’s a fundamental conflict when he 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.

S3: What really annoys most of us is people calling themselves pioneers in the industry when perhaps they’ve only been here for three years. You know, a lot of people don’t realize the amount of effort and the amount of danger we put ourselves into in trying to get this plant legalized.

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S1: For a lot of younger or newer cannabis consumers. The High Times brand means nothing for a lot of baby boomers. The New York Times is like a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac. It remains to be seen what will happen with the company. But and it pains me to say this, I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes up in smoke. That’s our show for today. This episode was produced by Jess Miller and Cleo Levin Technical Direction from Merrett Jaga, editing from Jonathan Fisher. Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for audio. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of podcasts and Slate. June Thomas is senior managing producer of the Slate podcast network Ilesha Soldier as managing producer. I’m Seth Stevenson. This is our last episode of the season here on Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism. We’re so grateful to all our listeners and we hope you’ve enjoyed the show. Stay tuned and make sure you’re subscribed for updates on what comes next.