Sale of High Times offers opportunity for more ambitious journalism

A display of High Times magazine covers during the High Times Cannabis Cup at Denver Mart in Denver, Colorado on April 20, 2014. (Photo by Seth McConnell/The Denver Post)

As the biggest shift in marijuana policy in a generation continues its steady roll-out, the 43-year-old magazine best known for its unabashedly pro-drug coverage is seeing a change in ownership that could alter the legalization movement’s direction, visibility, and panache.

High Times and its extremely profitable portfolio of Cannabis Cup events sold to a Los Angeles-based investment firm in a deal that valued the business at $70 million (no sales price was disclosed). It marks the magazine’s first change in ownership since 1974, and prompted the move of its remaining staff from midtown Manhattan to Los Angeles.

More importantly, the deal signifies a potential rebirth for the High Times brand, arguably the most recognizable in all of cannabis—and one that has been neglected at times throughout the last decade. High Times was early to report on the misinformation so often peddled by police departments, state governments, and even presidents on the topic of marijuana. Once considered the pinnacle of activist-minded marijuana reporting, it has struggled in the last decade to find its voice as its favorite plant transitioned from Public Enemy No. 1 to a recreational substance treated like beer.

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The magazine has never pretended to practice capital-J journalism. Instead its editors and writers have always owned their pro-drug, pro-legalization bias—often pointing to the magazine’s founder, Tom Forcade, himself a drug smuggler whose compelling (and legitimately insane) thrill-ride of a life will inevitably be subject to feature-film treatment someday.

Forcade’s creation has had an equally colorful history, including the cover profiles you would expect (Chong, Marley, Capote) as well as esteemed bylines that might surprise you (Bukowski, Burroughs, Robbins). While the Drug Enforcement Administration once raided the magazine’s advertisers and seized its customer lists in 1989, changes in public opinion and successful legal cannabis initiatives have ushered in a new era at the High Times HQ with talk of themed consumption lounges and even 420-friendly cruises.

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But in recent years High Times was so focused on its stable of successful events that the content of the magazine sometimes came off as something of an afterthought. That business strategy makes sense when you peek at the company’s numbers, which show that Cannabis Cups—festivals featuring live music, marijuana sampling, and vendor booths—represented 80 percent of revenues in 2015, according to The New York Times.

A brief aside: Cannabis journalism unexpectedly became a specialty of mine after editors at The Denver Post in 2013 surprised the world by appointing me as the paper’s first Marijuana Editor on the precipice of legalization. My team and I built The Cannabist, applying shoe-leather reporting tactics to the world’s first legal-marijuana beat.

As traditional media has thrived in discovering the marijuana beat—note the full-time cannabis-focused journalists at the Orange County Register and San Francisco ChronicleHigh Times’s freelancer-rooted editorial operation has lagged in comparison. Much of the magazine’s news coverage in recent years has been based on aggregation; instead of leading the cannabis conversation, High Times has been following—and suffering the consequences from a digital readership that demands more.

RELATED: How drug reporting is changing

Given that High Times and I used to be competitors, let’s make it clear that I’m not the only one acknowledging its recent struggles. Here’s what Adam Levin, the new chief executive of High Times Holding Co. who led the acquisition via his investment firm Oreva Capital, had to say:

“I think most would agree (High Times) was not executing business at max potential under the legacy framework established by the founders,” Levin said in a statement. “We are going to build on the strong base they created to bring High Times from the authority in the counterculture movement to a modern media enterprise.”

Levin understands High Times’s very real business potential, and is eyeing a significant expansion in the event space—a plan that will inevitably use the Cannabis Cup platform as its foundation. The acquisition announcement notes Levin and his team plan to “use a new influx of cash to expand collaborations in locations around the world to bring more events and bring new scale to sponsorship opportunities.”

 

A man tosses out samples at a booth during the High Times Cannabis Cup in Denver, Colorado on April 19, 2015. Photo via Getty Images.

 

And this makes sense. High Times is the undisputed king of the lucrative cannabis event market, though the previous ownership often came under fire for attempting to throw boundary-pushing, not-always-legal Cannabis Cups in Nevada, Colorado, the Netherlands, Oregon, and elsewhere. Now Levin and his co-owners, including musician Damian ‘Jr. Gong’ Marley and some notable entrepreneurs from the cannabis industry, can elevate High Times’s event game and truly master the art of the 420-friendly (and government-compliant) marijuana consumption festival of the future.

But I know I’m not alone in hoping Levin and his colleagues also plan to infuse the brand’s editorial operations with capital. Without the all-important content, there would be no High Times or Cannabis Cup. It is, after all, the content Marley remembers when he thinks back to his introduction to the brand.

“When I was in high school I used to grow some herb. I learned to differentiate male from the female plant by reading High Times magazine,” said Marley, who is part of the new ownership group, in a statement. “High Times also had me daydreaming of so many beautiful strains that at the time I had not yet had the chance to experience.”

When you think about it, the world needs that informed High Times voice now more than ever. Just think about our odd, difficult-to-digest legalization climate.

Marijuana is federally illegal in America, yet more and more states are choosing to legalize it medically and even recreationally—and soon Canada will join Uruguay in legalizing adult-use weed nationally. The US federal government also considers cannabis a Schedule I substance alongside the most dangerous drugs in the world, yet it also acknowledges that marijuana is a non-lethal, non-toxic substance in an era when another recreationally legal drug is killing 90,000 Americans annually.

Navigating these meandering cannabis jungles takes expertise, authority, and experience, and there has never been a better time for High Times to invest in its editorial operations to ensure that its most important legacy—the written word—is not forgotten.

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Ricardo Baca is a lifelong journalist and founder of The Cannabist. He currently writes the weekly Joint Ventures column on the cannabis industry for The Daily Beast—and his new content agency Grasslands works primarily with marijuana and hemp businesses.