High and Mighty
There are three questions people ask Rick Cusick when they learn he's an editor at High Times magazine.
"How did you get your job at High Times?"
"Can you get me a job at High Times?"
"Can you get me some weed?"
Picking at a greasy cheeseburger and French fries in the magazine's Manhattan lunchroom, Cusick ticks off the triad of common inquiries. The four other High Times staffers at the table crack up. "You told me that when I first started here and I thought you were joking," says a co-worker. "But four days after I started working here, I'd heard all the same questions."
They're not particularly surprising. After all, High Times is a monthly pothead publication, a Day-Glo testament to Mary Jane idolatry with a circulation of 175,000. Marijuana leaves dominate the magazine's glossy covers like hippie Christmas trees; inside are full-color centerfolds of sticky, crystalline buds photographed reverentially like buxom starlets, anonymous photos of clandestine ganja gardens, fatties the size of burritos. Each month, the publication's 96 pages are littered with garish ads plugging urine-detox products and hydroponic growing chambers, not to mention cannabis seeds and cannabis-flavored lollipops.
"There are people who smoke marijuana and there are people who define themselves as marijuana smokers," says Cusick. High Times is for the latter. "These are connoisseurs. These are people who're into the culture."
This is not a casual culture, a smoking circle content with stem-filled dime bags and resin-scraped bowls. Rather, this is the territory of two-foot bongs and herbal vaporizers.
"High Times is for the pot smoker," agrees editor Steve Bloom, who's worked at the publication for 15 years. "They spend money on marijuana; they spend money on paraphernalia. When they travel, they go to destinations that are pot-friendly. They're stoners. And stoners stick together because stoners are persecuted." Since possessing or selling pot is technically illegal, the regular pipe-packing burner is something of an outlaw – and High Times reflects its readers' resulting sense of camaraderie.
But outlaw culture has changed tremendously since High Times was launched in 1974. Drug use is both less and more marginalized than it was 30 years ago, and the drugs of choice have changed. LSD, which made occasional appearances in the early years of High Times, isn't nearly as prevalent as it was 30 years ago; for years, in fact, there's been a national acid shortage. Psychedelics' cerebral trips have given way to ecstasy's physical, full-bodied sensations.
As for marijuana, a specialized-niche magazine like High Times is less essential to casual pot users than it used to be, when it was first flooding the white middle class, and yet weed is also coming under increasing assault. As recently as 2003, the US Department of Justice launched Operation Pipe Dreams, an assault on the drug-paraphernalia industry that indicted more than 50 business owners and landed Tommy Chong in jail. Then there's the little fact that the country's political map is redder than ever. In this climate, can High Times continue to exist, never mind prosper?
High Times is about adventures around the world and inside your mind. About rock, jazz, and folk music.... High Times is about black magic in the White House and gods who live in the flowers. High Times goes backstage with the stars, under radar nets with the dope smugglers, into the underwear of the world's most beautiful people.... And, of course, High Times is still the hedonist's Bible of mind alteration. – High Times advertisement from September 1977"The most Dangerous Magazine in America" is how High Times described itself back in the late '70s. First published as "a one-shot lampoon of Playboy, substituting dope for sex" – as long-time contributor Paul Krassner recalled in the 2004 anthology, High Times Reader – the hedonistic publication was cooked up by 29-year-old Thomas King For§ade, a renegade drug smuggler and Yippie leader who'd been indicted for an alleged conspiracy to firebomb the 1972 Republican Convention. (Charges against him were dropped in 1974.) Known to manipulate his employees and pit them against each other, the manic-depressive For§ade was so mercurial in the office that he once fired the entire High Times staff, then invited them all back the following day.
In its first few years, the magazine's sensibility had its roots in the Hunter S. Thompson school of Gonzo journalism: drug-induced, exploratory, literary. Back then, it wasn't committed solely to marijuana: the first issue's cover featured a magic mushroom, the next a five-page piece about laughing gas. Later there'd be cocaine centerfolds. And there was certainly a demand for such recreational-drug veneration: in just two years, the journal's circulation shot up to 420,000.
But meteoric success is inherently unstable. In 1978, For§ade shot himself in the head with his pearl-handled pistol, leaving the magazine's ownership to a trust overseen by his lawyer, Michael Kennedy, a radical attorney who had represented academic LSD experimenter Timothy Leary and members of the Weather Underground.
Since then, High Times has become primarily a marijuana magazine, though it does occasionally mention hallucinogens. "I don't really worry about abuse potential with pot," explains Bloom. "I am concerned about the abuse potential of psychedelics. I think psychedelics are a good thing, but when they're abused, they can be the opposite. So we're a little more careful in the way we discuss that." He's quick to clarify: "You know, we're not in favor of anybody going to jail for illegal drugs. If you want to choose harmful drugs, go ahead, that's your business. But we're not really going to discuss them much in the magazine."
High Times has also become something of a brand. The magazine runs the 17-year-old Cannabis Cup, an internationally known annual marijuana-harvest festival in Amsterdam, where pot is cheap, legal, and plentiful. In the mid '90s, the company co-produced two benefit records for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) – Hempilation: Freedom Is NORML and Hempilation 2: Free the Weed – which featured pro-pot musicians like the Black Crowes, George Clinton, and Mike Watt extolling the virtues of demon weed. In 2002, High Times followed National Lampoon's lead and lent its name to a feature-length film, High Times Potluck, a reefer-mobster caper.
"Movies with marijuana themes usually have bad props," says Bloom. "They use those bad, fake plants and bongs that they get out of the '70s prop closet because they're afraid to do anything real. [At] one of the [film's] first tests, I looked at it and said, 'Not enough pot.'" So High Times staffers served as drug consultants for the film.
Then there are the Bonghitters, High Times' legendary softball team that battles, and usually crushes, teams from other media outlets, such as the Onion, The New Yorker and The Daily Show. The Bonghitters have been around since 1991, when they had a mascot named Dreddy Duck. Back then, the players rallied on Central Park's Great Lawn with war paint, chants, drums, and post-game bong circles.
"We were a little bit more of a freak show," Bloom says. These days, they're more understated, limiting themselves largely to their theme song, "Take Me Out to the Bong Game." Last year, the team went 15-3-1; in the previous two years, they were undefeated. "We tend not to smoke too much before games," says Bloom, also the team's coach. "I think that's the secret to our success. I always say, 'Feel free to have THC floating through your system, but don't smoke when you're running out there to play third base.'"
The High Times offices are, appropriately enough, high. Perched on the 16th floor of a Park Avenue skyscraper in downtown Manhattan, the countercultural magazine's home base shares a floor with the law offices of Michael Kennedy – perhaps the reason why there's no High Times cover gallery in the building lobby, no recent issue to thumb through in the waiting room.
The office is spacious and filled with natural light, and boasts a panoramic view of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building. Employee attire is casual: hooded sweatshirts, T-shirts, sneakers; one designer wears an '80s-era Metallica T-shirt that says METAL UP YOUR ASS. Although deadlines are ever looming, there aren't any grimaces or looks of consternation here, no pursed lips or frantic stress. As might be expected of a magazine whose employees work on all things marijuana, everyone looks pretty damn happy.
These days, an egalitarian management style obtains at High Times, with a "triumvirate" of editors at the helm. Of the three, Cusick is the financial strategist, a former ad director whose business acumen helps shape the magazine's editorial vision. David Bienenstock, who's presently in Amsterdam, provides the youthful humor to the editorial-management balance; he's a 29-year-old writer/editor/documentary filmmaker who's worked at the magazine for nearly three years. The third editor is 50-year-old Bloom, a laid-back, no-bullshit kind of guy. He's the elder statesman of the masthead; before his High Times tenure began in 1988, he freelanced and wrote two books, one about video games, the other about short basketball players.
The High Times office is a friendly, discursive environment. When the film American Beauty comes up at the lunch table, the magazine's staffers don't deconstruct the plot, they guffaw at the ludicrousness of Kevin Spacey's character doling out $2,000 for half an ounce of weed. And High Times would know what's laughable; for years, they've run a column called "Trans-High Market Quotes" (THMQ), a list of prices submitted by readers who've bought bud on the black market. (In the upcoming May 2005 issue, "Maui Wowie" is listed at $500 per ounce in Boston, "Strawberry Cough" at $480 per ounce in New York, and "Donkey Shit" at $300 per ounce in Illinois.)
Danny Danko, a contributing writer to the magazine's Grow section, keeps a "Kook File," a thick ream of correspondence from unhinged readers. It also includes three Publication Denial Notifications from prisons refusing receipt of the magazine. "Publication contains information regarding the manufacture of explosives, weapons, and drugs," read the notices.
Bloom has just returned from Miami, where he attended the High Times-sponsored annual Bob Marley Caribbean Festival. Sitting at his desk in an office that's covered wall-to-wall with DVDs and videotapes like How High and Dazed & Confused and books by Hunter S. Thompson and Camille Paglia, he explains how High Times manages to continue doing what it does. Most important, he says, the First Amendment allows them the freedom of speech to write about whatever they want, contraband or not.
"That's how we can publish this magazine about an illegal subject without being censored, without being harassed." As for their dope-photo shoots, well, they're not so constitutionally protected. "The large variety of stuff you see in the magazine is technically illegal," Bloom concedes. "If the government wants to look into that, I suppose they would. I hope they don't. I hope they have better things to worry about than where the pot is coming from for a High Times photo shoot." He pauses. "Anyway, I think they'd create a cause c©l¨bre by busting High Times."
Another theory holds that the government actually likes having High Times around. Last year, the Smoking Gun Web site reported that the Drug Enforcement Administration has three subscriptions to the magazine. "[It's possible] they like High Times existing because they can kind of hear and see, 'Okay this is what drug culture is doing now. This is their latest method of concealment,' or whatever," says Bloom. "We try not to give away too many secrets in the magazine, but at the same time, readers do want to know, how do you conceal marijuana when you're going across a border? So if we say, 'Vacuum pack,' well, aren't the authorities going to read that and go, 'Hmm ... vacuum pack? They're getting smart.' So maybe they want us out there – which is not to say we're doing their job in any way, shape, or form, or have any relations to the DEA.
"But what are we going to do?" he continues. "We want to help people, but we also want to do it in subtle ways. So it's sort of a battle back and forth."
So what would High Times be without reefer? In 2003, the publication's parent company, Trans-High Corporation (THC), found out. In the wake of Operation Pipe Dreams, the magazine's retail sales began to lag, and advertising was on the decline. "It hurt us advertising-wise because they went after a lot of our advertisers," Bloom recalls. "So we suffered a drop-off, probably a 20 percent advertising drop-off due to that." There'd also been a consensus that High Times was graying under the leadership of editor Steve Hager. So THC decided to overhaul the magazine completely, bringing in ex-con-turned-television-exec Richard Stratton as publisher and Norman Mailer's son John Mailer Buffalo, then a 25-year-old playwright, as editor. The duo's prescription for a revamped High Times ? Weed out the weed to increase the magazine's profitability.
"It was an attempt to mainstream," notes Bloom. "But it's hard to mainstream High Times. Marijuana may gradually be getting more mainstream, but it's illegal – and that's what we're known for – which makes it kind of hard to mainstream this magazine."
"We're using pot as a metaphor," Mailer told the New York Times after he'd come aboard, a comment that still makes staffers roll their eyes. As the new management steered the publication in a politically progressive direction, High Times' tagline switched from the renegade "Celebrating the counterculture" to the bland "Celebrating freedom." On the cover, celebrities like comedian Dave Chappelle, folk singer Ani DiFranco, and actor Michael Weber supplanted the deified, quasi-eroticized bud showcase.
But High Times without herb was like Penthouse without breasts, Popular Mechanics without cars, O without Oprah. The transformation failed miserably. "We tried to become somewhere in between High Times and the Nation," recalls Bloom. "There were some readers out there who liked that shit, but I think those were the readers who weren't the real hard-core smokers. The vast majority of readers didn't really respond positively to that change. They felt that we had betrayed them and left a vast majority of them behind."
THC's immediate response was to start publishing a supplementary magazine, Grow America, a 100,000-circulation quarterly that complemented the new version of High Times. Into the new publication went the cannabis coverage. Says Bloom, "Grow America protected us during this perilous period." Still, financial losses mounted, morale dropped, and some employees started hunting for jobs. "It was a difficult time emotionally, financially, spiritually," reflects Cusick.
Stratton and Mailer left after a year. THC replaced them with the three "survivors" who'd weathered the stormy period: Cusick, Bloom, and Bienenstock. The trio made a deliberate decision to cater to the younger 18-to-25-year-old demographic. Under the new team, the articles are shorter. There are more sidebars. The content is more pop-cultural. And the adjustment has already paid off: in only five months, advertisers have returned and the magazine's circulation has rebounded to 175,000 and climbing.
Above all, as High Times' January 2005 issue proudly announced, THE BUDS ARE BACK!
"Thank God," sighs Cusick. "We have the bud back."
There are three kinds of celebrity covers at High Times : the People-style celebrity portrait; the celebrity posing with pot; and the celebrity actually smoking pot. "We can get rappers to do that," says Cusick matter-of-factly.
But it wasn't always that way. The watershed celebrity moment came in 1992, when the Black Crowes and Cypress Hill posed for a cover. Before that, the magazine had hyped celebrities only sporadically – Andy Warhol, Bob Marley, Hunter Thompson. But they were already countercultural icons, so they weren't cast as pot smokers "coming out." It wasn't until the Black Crowes appeared that posing on the cover of High Times – especially holding or smoking herb – became a kind of pro-pot gesture. Since then, High Times has featured the likes of Tenacious D's Jack Black and Kyle Gass, Ozzy Osbourne, Marilyn Manson, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Ali G, and Method Man.
"We get hip-hop stars, metal-style-type artists, and people who're somewhat extreme in their approach to their art," says Bloom. "They're people who won't care about the ramifications of being on the cover of HT. They'll take it and roll with it and accept the responsibility that comes with being a poster person for pot, however long that lasts – for one month, a year, or longer."
For example, actress/eco-activist Daryl Hannah granted an interview for the April 2005 issue of High Times, and even though she isn't on the cover, she speaks favorably about grass and psychedelics. "Things like mushrooms, peyote, hallucinogens, marijuana shouldn't be illegal," Hannah is quoted saying. "They can actually be quite educational and result in epiphanies." After the magazine hit the stands, her statements ended up as fodder for Jay Leno jokes.
Obviously, there are many more famous burners than the ones who go public with their indulgence. "A lot of celebrities tend to stay in closets, just like the average smoker," says Bloom. "We have our wish list of people we'd want on the cover, and we knock on a lot of doors and see. We knock on Dave Matthews's door all the time. We had Jack Black on the cover with Tenacious D, but we'd like one solo with him. We're interested in Owen Wilson, we'd like to knock on Snoop Dogg's door again, Willie Nelson to cater to our older crowd. Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Montel Williams – those people are sort of few and far between."
Two doors down from Bloom, Cusick is in his office, a confusion of dog-eared stacks, crumpled scraps of paper, and upturned books. A visitor with rectangular specs and a hooded sweatshirt embroidered with the name of his former company, Seedless, stops by; Cusick exalts him as a former "bong baron" who got shut down during Operation Pipe Dreams.
Cusick calls people like him "heroes," the "Rhett Butlers of our time." He sees the Department of Justice's assault on glassware manufacturers and bong impresarios as another bomb in an ongoing barrage, a stoner-versus-state clash that forces his publication to serve as a kind of drug-war soldier's manual. "We're more like Stars & Stripes magazine than Vanity Fair," Cusick says. "We're in a time of war, this is a war journal, and we should have our war face on. We should understand our readership, understand that their rights are being taken away, they're going to jail, their families are being destroyed. It's easy to forget all that stuff."
Another of Cusick's heroes is the inventor of the Whizzinator, a prosthetic penis on a belt that excretes synthetic urine for drug tests. There's a full-page ad for the equipment in High Times, a crotch shot with a marijuana leaf superimposed over the fake phallus. "Someone once said, 'That's vulgar.' No, no, no!" insists Cusick. "High-school students getting drug-tested – that's vulgar! The Whizzinator? Now that's sublime !"
At least once a week, Cusick's phone rings at 4:20pm (long a universal time to light up a joint). On the other end of the line he'll hear giggling along with the unmistakable sound of a bubbling bong. One regular reader has sent Cusick dozens of e-mails about a bud he swears looks like Jesus. "I was like, 'Can you send me a picture?'" recalls Cusick. "The guy e-mails me back right away and says, 'Sure, I have 578 of them.'"
He also sees a never-ending stream of photos of half-nude women with dope leaves obscuring their private parts. "It's as if we've solicited them, but we haven't," Cusick says. "Somehow, organically, the idea springs up. 'There's my girlfriend, there're my buds – the two things I care most about in the world. Let me send them to High Times.'"
Cusick is the first to admit that the constant sex-and-pot mail he receives probably stems from the fact that the magazine's readership is predominantly male. "It's an outlaw culture, and more men tend to be outlaws than women," Cusick reasons – a theory consistent with the magazine's original intent to be the Playboy of pot culture.
Indeed, after its brief stint as a slick, celebrity-driven version of the Nation, High Times is back to its roots. And with circulation on the increase, it's rolling out the brand-name products: T-shirts, calendars, trucker caps marked OFFICIAL High Times TASTE TESTER. Bloom says they're even looking into putting out a High Times video game.
But High Times' most important goal extends far beyond brands and bottom lines. "It'd be so great to see marijuana legalized someday and know that we played some part in it," says Bloom. "I'd love to see that day."