How the world’s most notorious magazine took off and reached unexpected heights.
By Mike Gianakos
Against all odds, High Times became an internationally known magazine, now celebrating 45 years of continuous publication with more than 500 issues. There is no question that the publication far exceeded the wildest, most ambitious expectations of the men and women who first introduced it to the world back in the mid-1970s.
High Times was founded in 1974 by the political activist and ace marijuana smuggler Thomas King Forcade. Forcade, it is said, was the first activist to use pieing as an act of protest, back in 1970. He was a brilliant and savvy media mind who co-founded and ran the Underground Press Syndicate, a network of counterculture publications, in the late 1960s. And he kept some of those magazines afloat, just as he later did with High Times during its lean years, with proceeds from his smuggling activities.
When Forcade conceived of High Times, it was, according to legend, intended as a one-off spoof of Playboy, with cannabis standing in for scantily clad women. However, some believe that Forcade’s mission in creating this magazine was no joke—perhaps even a protest against Richard Nixon’s war on weed. Nixon, of course, hated marijuana and, even more so, marijuana smokers (he would have absolutely despised a marijuana magazine being funded by pot-smuggling profits). His Controlled Substances Act of 1970 classified cannabis as a Schedule I drug with a high potential for abuse and no medicinal value, and it’s the reason pot is still federally illegal today.
While it’s likely that Forcade would have been excited by the opportunity to create something that would both give a platform to the much-maligned marijuana plant and agitate his foes, it’s hard to believe he could have had any inkling of the almost immediate sensation High Times was about to become. The magazine that was conceived of during a nitrous oxide session was about to rival mainstream titles like Rolling Stone and National Lampoon in sales.
The first issue of High Times debuted in the summer of 1974 and was a massive hit, quickly selling out its initial print run of 10,000 copies. The issue was reprinted twice and sold out each time. The iconic cover of High Times No. 1 had a lot to do with the accomplishment. The image of a young woman tipping her head back in preparation for ingesting a shroom (which, in reality, was a perfectly legal store-bought mushroom) was undeniably eye-catching. As the cover-shoot photographer Robyn Scott explained, it was intended to create the feeling of “Going on a safari, a trip, escape from reality. It was about a journey.” Of course, the content in High Times No. 1 also contributed to the issue’s success. Features touting the medical properties of cannabis and the benefits of hemp were well ahead of their time, and an interview with a “lady dealer” was enough to pique most Stoners’ interest. Clearly, this was content you couldn’t find anywhere else.
On the heels of the success of High Times No. 1, the second issue of HT quickly sold out its 50,000-copy print run. Forcade and his outlaw publication had found an eager audience. Soon, High Times’s circulation would balloon to over half a million.
The 1970s produced some of the most iconic High Times covers, from the bare breast smothered in chocolate (October ’75) to the close-up look at a live cannabis plant (June ’76). Yes, it wasn’t until 1976, the 10th issue of High Times, that a live pot plant appeared on the cover. Cannabis was such a taboo subject at the time that a bare, chocolate-covered breast was considered the safer cover image by staffers. In time, cannabis plants would become a cover-image mainstay for the magazine. As senior cultivation editor Danny Danko puts it, “People love to see what their pot looks like when it’s growing.”
Other notable covers from this period include Andy Warhol with a Coke bottle (August ’77), the bananas cover (September ’78), Dope & Sex (October ’78) and, of course, Bob Marley (September ’76)—you can read more about HTs classic covers on page 54.
The rapid rise of High Times was the “publishing success story of the ’70s,” says former HT contributor Albert Goldman. The magazine was able to showcase celebrities like Marley, Mick Jagger and Peter Tosh as well as important counterculture writers like Charles Bukowski, William S. Burroughs and Terry Southern. According to Goldman, “Forcade would see the circulation double with every issue for years, until at its peak, in 1978, High Times was read by four million people a month [and] grossed five million dollars a year.”
Then, at the height of his success as a publisher, Forcade tragically took his own life in 1978 at the age of 33. His lawyer, Michael Kennedy, would eventually run the company and, indeed, lead High Times during some of its most prosperous years. Kennedy was a fascinating character whose connection to the counterculture was primarily through the clients he ferociously defended, including Huey Newton, Timothy Leary and members of the Weather Underground. While Kennedy would eventually take over as chairman, High Times was put into a trust after Forcade died.
As the magazine continued on without its founder and benefactor, it took a brief detour into hard drugs. Cocaine was often found on the covers and in the centerfolds of the magazine during the early to mid ’80s. Inside, High Times’s famed Trans High Market Quotations (THMQ), which provides readers with pot prices in different locations and has run in every issue of HT, included the going rate for coke, methamphetamines, LSD and more. The king of counterculture magazines was at a crossroads. Would it continue to embrace all drugs, or would High Times kick the habit and stick with cannabis?
Luckily, the magazine’s leadership shifted in the late ’80s, and the editorial team of Steven Hager and John Howell made the wise decision to leave coke and other hard drugs behind, keeping the magazine focused on promoting pot. Around this time, Hager also made the magazine’s first foray into the Dutch cannabis scene, profiling master breeder Nevil Schoenmakers in the March 1987 issue. Hager felt he was on to something in Holland, where, thanks to that nation’s tolerance of cannabis, a robust breeding scene had developed. The following year, 1988, Hager held the first-ever Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam. This was a seminal moment for High Times, as the event would continue to be held for decades, becoming the biggest cannabis competition in the world, and eventually spreading stateside when medical and adult-use legalization laws became a reality in America.
With the magazine back on track, pot remained front and center (along with select celebrities and musicians). Throughout the ’90s and into the new millennium, cultivation articles took on a bigger role in HT along with high-quality cannabis photographs.
However, an insidious DEA investigation nearly brought the company down just as it was hitting its stride. Operation Green Merchant launched in October 1989 in response to the rise in home cultivation at the time. The DEA targeted advertisers in High Times and Sinsemilla Tips magazine, along with Seed Bank of Holland owner Nevil Schoenmakers. The feds tracked shipments of grow equipment sold by these advertisers and busted the recipients in an earnest effort to wipe out the cultivation industry. Green Merchant resulted in over 1,000 arrests and raids of nearly 1,000 indoor grow ops. In the end, Sinsemilla Tips was shuttered and Schoenmakers went on the run. High Times ultimately weathered the storm but the climate of fear and uncertainty created by the operation had a lasting impact. It would be years before the magazine fully recovered.
High Times faced its next challenge in 2004, when new leadership made the decision to remove marijuana altogether from the pages of the magazine. The idea, as best as anyone can tell, was to turn HT into a literary/counterculture/political magazine. And while it might have seemed wise on paper, it did not work in practice as readers were alienated by the new HT. Fortunately, the company realized the mistake and, in 2005, brought cannabis back to High Times with a triumphant cover announcing that “The Buds Are Back!” over a backdrop of Strawberry Cough nugs. Immediately, the magazine regained its audience, and cannabis has been the focal point of High Times ever since.
As High Times heads into a new decade, navigating a digital world, the focus remains fixed on pot. And we hope you, loyal reader, will continue to enjoy the marijuana journalism, photography and cultivation tips you find in the pages of this magazine.
Read the full issue here.
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Why don’t you guys send out the magazines that people have spent their hard earned money on? Haven’t received an issue in months! Nobody will respond to my emails. Terrible customer service.