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High Times Magazine May Be the Most Influential Publication of Our Era

It actually changed the culture

Photo Courtesy of High Times Magazine

There’s a great long story in this week’s New Yorker, “BUZZKILL,” about the obstacles to a functional pot market in Washington state, whose voters legalized the possession of up to an ounce of cannabis in a 2012 ballot initiative. The writer, Patrick Radden Keefe, is one of the magazine’s best. He has a knack for twisty narratives and an eye for the perfect detail: the dispensary owner who introduces him to a “bristly” plant called “Alaskan Thunderfuck”; the policy expert who says full legalization of cannabis would result in drastically fewer arrests and imprisonments but would also add an additional “fifteen billion stoned hours. You have to decide whether a stoned hour is a good thing or a bad thing.” Radden Keefe is young and fearless and his stuff sticks. It’s a safe guess he’ll win an Ellie someday—a small-elephant-shaped trophy that represents the highest honor in the profession, the magazine equivalent of an Oscar statuette. After all, The New Yorker is the king of the realm, having won 56 Ellies since 1970.

The magazine that made Radden Keefe's pot story thinkable in the first place, though, will almost certainly not be invited to the annual New York dinner where the award is given out. The Ellie judges do a good job of honoring a certain strain of magazine work—the most prestigious categories are for big rollicking investigations and stylish features—but they only consider work that magazines submit. This means that they've never recognized the magazine that not only spent decades laying the political and psychic groundwork for the Washington ballot initiative but that also transformed the culture to the point where it’s no big deal to pick up a general-audience magazine like The New Yorker in the grocery-store checkout line and see a big headline about pot on the front flap. I’m talking about a magazine that may not be as wide-ranging and journalistically ambitious as The New Yorker but is probably more visionary and influential. I’m talking about a magazine whose softball team, the Bonghitters, has long dominated the New York Media Softball League, thanks to its “unusual intensity” of play and willingness to use "psychological warfare": According to The New York Times, when the Bonghitters battled the New Yorker in 1991 and the New Yorker’s “esteemed baseball writer Roger Angell threw out the first pitch,” the Bonghitters “sent out a costumed mascot, Dreddy Duck, to swing in vain at the ceremonial delivery, then collapse onto home plate.” What magazine could this be but High Times, the glossy bible of pot?

If you’re laughing now, you’re not the first. “I think we've always been snickered at, for at least the last 35 years,” says High Times editorial director Dan Skye. “We were kind of a blip on the radar, because people didn’t take us seriously.” On a Saturday Night Live skit once, Jack Black played the “investigative reporter” for High Times. The gag was that every time he stood up to ask a question at a press conference, or found himself poised to crack open some big scoop, he’d forget what he was doing because he was so high. This isn’t actually what it’s like. In a 1998 memoir, Chris Simunek, the magazine’s former cultivation editor (the guy who helps readers grow their own pot) and current editor-in-chief, recalls meeting then-editor-in-chief Steve Hager for the first time. Simunek happened to be carrying a copy of Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night. “Steve flipped when he saw Journey,” Simunek writes. “I was surprised that the Editor-in-Chief of High Times… read Céline. I always thought High Times was run by a bunch of Deadheads from the back of a Volkswagen bus.” (Today, just 20 people put out a 150-page monthly magazine, manage the website and the office, and run the company’s popular Cannabis Cup festivals; you can’t do that if you aren’t motivated.)

There aren't many publications that can claim to have moved America in any concrete or measurable way, but High Times can. Its founder, a pot smuggler named Thomas King Forçade, planted it like a flag in 1974, to “give credence to the idea that our bodies are our own and exploring alternative consciousness is an essential part of our existence,” Skye says. When Forçade committed suicide in 1978, his ashes were mixed with an ounce of pot and smoked by High Times staffers on top of the World Trade Center. Over the next decades, the magazine evolved; Forçade’s punk-rock defiance crystallized into a gentler form of stoner libertarianism. “Do whatever you want” became “do whatever you want as long as you’re not hurting others.” The mission now is to make pot mainstream, to familiarize and demystify. Pot is "like corn or soybeans or anything else," says Skye. "There's no reason to demonize this plant, it's been around for centuries." The magazine educates its readers with tenacity and creativity, through gear and weed-strain reviews, through interviews with pot-loving celebrities and pictures of women standing near-naked in rows of plants, and through endless how-to articles about growing—“service journalism" with a political aim. As the magazine’s general counsel Michael Kennedy recently told The Nation, "If, in fact, you can teach people how to grow, and there’s a First Amendment right to teach, they can start growing under any imaginable circumstances—from your aunt’s sewing basket to a drawer in your college dorm. All you need is a paper towel and a little bit of water, and nature will take care of the rest. If everybody who wants to grow can learn how to grow, then there’s no way the government can possibly withstand that subversion."

Before High Times, getting information on soils and fertilizers and grow lights was difficult; you had to piece together your horticultural strategy from old heads and from books. I recently interviewed a prolific cannabis breeder named DJ Short, creator of the ubiquitous “Blueberry” strain of weed, among many others, and he told me that the discovery of High Times was a crucial moment in his life. Originally from a suburb of Detroit, the son of a World War II veteran who worked in a factory, Short picked up the second issue of High Times at a mall when he was 17 years old. “And that legitimized it for us so much: ‘Oh, wow, this is a culture.’ ”

At first, the members of that culture were fringe characters, hounded by the authorities, derided by fellow citizens. (One 1975 headline about the magazine read, “High Times glossy voice of drug cult.”) Forty years later, though, pot smokers are part of a broad and friendly majority. A Gallup poll in October found that 58 percent of Americans think cannabis should be legalized (the number was only 12 percent in 1969), and other polls show that more than 80 percent back the use of medical cannabis, which is allowed in 21 states and the District of Columbia. The recreational use of cannabis is now legal in two states, Washington and Colorado, and more states are set to join them. And as the culture breaks toward the High Times position, the magazine is thriving—selling ads to the new cannabis entrepreneurs, adding pages to the magazine in a business climate when most magazines are cutting them, and drawing more than 1 million unique clicks on its website in October. "People are listening to us more than ever before,” Skye says. “We have new credibility."

Lately I've been trying to think of non-obvious reasons why High Times doesn’t get more respect in magazineland, given its influence. (When I asked Skye why he'd never submitted any of his staff's work for an Ellie, he said, "That's a good question.” He laughed for four seconds. “It’s just nothing that really occurs to us, frankly, to go after the awards.”) I wonder if it’s because a lot of magazines make their bones by doing the inverse of what High Times is so good at. When I was in my early twenties, I attended a conference in New York for young journalists, run by David Granger, editor of Esquire, and sponsored by the American Society of Magazine Editors, the same people who give out Ellies. There were talks and panels with prominent magazine names—Bonnie Fuller of Us Weekly was there, and Michael Wolff, now a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. It's Wolff's talk that I still remember. He said he knew what made a magazine great. A magazine is great when it creates the momentary illusion that you can be part of a more glamorous and exciting world just by reading it—but of course you can't. I loved this riff because it perfectly described the allure of the magazines I was reading at the time in order to learn how to be a magazine writer: Esquire with its silky profiles of celebrities and criminals; Wired and its promises of a faster, cooler future; Vanity Fair, where even the fonts have a fuck-you sheen.

A great magazine is aspirational. High Times is not. High Times is populist, egoless, frictionless. High Times will welcome you into the life for the price of a vaporizer and some bud. This is its quiet greatness: magazine not as mirror but window. A perfectly transparent rag for the ever-growing numbers of pot users and advocates who are making America a more humane country even as some Americans still point and laugh. Think about it the next time you smoke up—you lawyers, you doctors, you editors: All these decades, while aspirational glossies were piling up on your coffee tables, dank with perfume inserts, the shrewd stoners at High Times were building a movement, and winning.

Darren Everson's Response:

High Times is a fine magazine. But it hasn’t “long dominated the New York Media Softball League,” as your article this week said. (Unless you meant the regular season.)
This year’s NYMSL champion is Institutional Investor. The 2009-12 champ was the Wall Street Journal. The 2008 champ was BusinessWeek. High Times last won in 2007.
The Bonghitters do all of their hitting in the regular season. Despite finishing first each year, they lost to us in the championship game in 2010, 2011, and 2012. This year they finally beat us in the semifinals—only to lose the title game yet again.
Looking forward to a follow-up on whether pot use causes choking…
Darren Everson
The Wall Street Journal