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High and mighty
After a brief stint as a slick, celebrity-driven version of the Nation, the pot-appreciation magazine High Times is back to its roots — and readers are inhaling deeply

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 Forçade, 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 Forçade 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, Forçade 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.’ "

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