Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by High Times and Getty Images Plus.
The magazine was a countercultural icon. Its new owners want to make it a name brand.
The following article is a written adaptation of an episode of Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism, Slate’s podcast about companies in the news and how they got there.
In the 1990s, marijuana 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 Times settled into a formula that worked 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 plant. Former editor-in-chief Malcolm MacKinnon says he made sure that every issue of High Times featured lavish photos of weed. “People love to look at the buds,” he says. “People called it bud porn. It’s that close-up shot. People can imagine smoking it. And that’s what we’re looking for. For a long time, when we put a bud on a cover, we could always expect that to sell, but we had to get more creative as the years went on.”
At one point, MacKinnon, who snapped many of these bud photos himself, became obsessed with the thought of photographing buds in front of Mount Rushmore—“not the brightest idea,” he says. “When I got out of the car, went up on a ridge, and was going to shoot buds right there with Mount Rushmore 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 at the top of the ridge and came back down. I had to talk to the cops for a half-hour. And then I said, ‘Jeez, I left my sweatshirt up there. Can I go back up and get it?’ Went back up there and got the buds and walked right by them with all the buds in my sweatshirt.”
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 Mailer. The new publisher was friends with Norman Mailer, and John Buffalo Mailer was his 25-year-old son.
MacKinnon says “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’d put in the magazine were just horrible. The covers during that time—I mean, the magazine nearly fell on its ass. We lost a third of the circulation in nine months.”
This experiment with respectability was abandoned, and order was restored in less than a year. John Buffalo Mailer exited the scene, while MacKinnon 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 had for many years held the event in Amsterdam, where the law was much less of a problem, but now it could 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 the magazine’s founder, Tom Forçade—the organization was forced to answer some tough questions about its own identity. “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?” MacKinnon says. “Is High Times a business magazine, or are we still appealing to the people who just absolutely love marijuana?”
Published: July 27, 2021
Founder & Interim Editor of L.A. Cannabis News