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40-Year Flashback: That Time the Feds Tried to Take Down High Times

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In preparation of our 40th anniversary, we asked High Times’ alumni what they remember most about working with the magazine. You can find a treasure trove of stoner memories in the new High Times 40th Anniversary issue, on sale now.

We’re looking back at 40 years of In our four decades of existence, there have been a number of attempts to shut us down. Self-righteous groups have periodically called for HT to be removed from newsstand shelves for the good of “the children;” several states passed laws in the 1970s reclassifying the magazine as “drug paraphernalia” and thus illegal to sell or possess; and subscriber lists have been requested by the Feds on occasion. (The Feds never got them.)

None of those ploys made much of a dent in HT’s circulation or advertising revenue. But there was one federal effort, Operation Green Merchant, that had us on the run for a while. And we were only the collateral damage.

Operation Green Merchant was the brainchild of a Drug Enforcement Administration agent, Jim Stewart. In late 1987, while leafing through HT, Stewart was struck by ads for gardening equipment — all of which he presumed was intended solely for pot growing. He urged the DEA to send agents to the gardening stores that advertised in High Times and have them ask leading questions about marijuana growing. Some of the storeowners and their employees were crazy enough to answer those questions rather than showing the undercovers the door. By late 1988, Stewart and the DEA had enough information to subpoena the records for all UPS deliveries from those stores — about 20,000 total from almost 30 businesses.

Green Merchant went public on Black Thursday, October 26, 1989, when federal agents and state and county police fanned out across the country and raided stores in 46 states. Books, merchandise and records were taken from more than three dozen stores; 11 store owners were arrested; and several stores were padlocked. One particularly sharp editor at HT offices secured all of the Rolodexes and had them removed from the premises, just in case the DEA came for them.

Thousands of growers were busted in the following weeks. Thousands of other people, growing nothing more illegal than tomatoes and zucchini, were asked to open their doors and allow federal agents to inspect their indoor gardens. Hundreds of homes, farms and cars were seized under asset-forfeiture laws.

For High Times, which depended on the garden centers as its primary source of ad revenue at the time, things got very tight. But for the thousands of individuals busted in these raids, things were far worse. Those stores that were allowed to remain open were put under full-time surveillance, with customers being followed back to their homes by state or federal agents. Dutch seed bank merchant Nevil Schoenmaker was chased across the globe, and thousands of people wound up in prison.

It was a devastating toll. High Times was lucky to survive and thrive — but an awful lot of people caught up in the operation’s net didn’t fare as well.

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