OP-ED: Fare thee well, High Times?

June 26, 2020
From the High Times Magazine 4/20 Celebration on April 20, 2017. Photo by Tiffany Rose/WireImage

On May 11, Adam Levin, executive chairman of Hightimes Holding Corp., held an investor webinar. Levin appeared in front of a Zoom background of the Hollywood hills, whose well-known sign had been changed to spell High Times.

“So many people keep popping up on the thing,” he said, excitedly reading the chat box. “‘Good evening from Virginia.’ ‘Hi, from San Diego.’ ‘Memphis is here.’ ‘Hi from Mexico,’ ‘from Moscow.’” He couldn’t stop grinning. “The whole world knows High Times.”

Eventually, Levin and his colleagues—Paul Henderson, the company’s president; and Peter Horvath, its new CEO—got down to business. They were pitching a chance to commit funds to the forthcoming initial public offering of Hightimes Holding Corp.: With a minimum investment of just $550, any one of these hundreds of virtual attendees—some fans of the magazine, some aspiring investors, most a little of both—could hold shares of a company pivoting into a different business, from publishing to products, and from counterculture to corporate. 

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I’d be lying if I said I never missed reporting on cannabis when the plant was still outside the gravitational pull of big capital. Today, cannabis is a multibillion dollar industry—one that intersects with alcohol, tobacco, and pharmaceuticals. And High Times is not the only counterculture symbol-turned-brand-turned-commodity. A private equity firm in Seattle called Privateer Holdings is behind the official Bob Marley-branded cannabis products, called Marley Natural. The company behind alcohol brands such as SVEDKA and Corona invested $4 billion into a cannabis company in Canada, Canopy Growth, turning it into one of the most valuable cannabis companies in the world. 

When I began to cover cannabis in 2010, it was the end of the era represented by High Times’ run as (primarily) a print magazine. Then, covering cannabis meant covering a movement, more so than an industry. I remember reporting that year from the office of NORML, an organization that has pushed for legalization since its founding in Washington, DC, in 1970—just four years before the printing of the first issue of High Times. In that office, the High Times archive stood like a shrine. 

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On November 6, 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize cannabis for adult use. That night, I was in Seattle, reporting alongside the campaign as the results rolled in. When it comes to covering cannabis, I remember it as both a beginning and an end.

Nearly 50 years after High Times’ founding as an irreverent magazine that often served those growing cannabis—say, in their closets—the Hightimes Holding Corp. wants to slap the High Times brand on cannabis stores and on those things sold inside. Just days before Levin’s investor webinar, Arizona-based Harvest Health and Recreation, one of the largest cannabis companies in the US, announced it would sell several of its California shops to High Times

When I imagine the magazine’s founder and early readers saying “IPO,” I think of the caterpillar from Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, a bit mocking and a bit cool, forming each letter from a puff of smoke. This was a magazine so ahead of its time that when writer Victor Bockris asked Susan Sontag in 1978 why she agreed to speak to him for an interview for the magazine, at a time when she was giving few interviews, she said, “I’m giving an interview because… because it’s High Times. I was intrigued by that, sure.”

In many ways, the High Times story is also a media-industry story: The decline of print advertising. The shift to digital. The decline in the value of digital ads. And, as the result of an effort to get more ad revenue via more clicks, the deepening canyon between quality and quantity. 

And as the media industry reels from the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, so, too, does High Times. The company told potential investors that “while events were a large percentage of our revenue prior to the pandemic … retail sales will make up a large percentage of our revenue going forward.” High Times, as one of their many emails about the IPO said, “will emerge a different company.”    

High Times is not the only media company to explore revenue streams through products. BuzzFeed sells Tasty brand non-stick cookware in Walmart. But for the High Times brand, this “pivot to plant-touching assets,” as the company described it, feels like a pivot too far. Maybe the company is “poised to thrive in this bear market!” as they said in one of the dozens of emails they’ve sent to promote the IPO to potential investors. Maybe “the flag of High Times” will fly “as the face of the recession-proof plant we all know and love.” Maybe “fortunes are made on the darkest days,” as they wrote after sharing “the famous quote from 18th century British nobleman Baron Rothschild: ‘Buy when there’s blood in the streets…’” But even if they “have decades of history that will be infused into our stores,” will it be the High Times that, as Levin said on the call, “the whole world knows”?

On that investor webinar, Horvath sat in a cavernous, dim room. Behind him was a large cabinet, lit inside to showcase a wall of expensive liquor. Later on, someone would call out Horvath’s track record of jumping from company to company. (In March, he departed a cannabis company called Green Growth Brands, founded in 2018.) Another commenter would ask if the IPO will actually happen; Levin first announced a High Times IPO in 2018, not long after he acquired the company. Since then, the company has had three CEOs, including Horvath. This time, Levin assured them, was for real. Those on the call were reminded that, even though the company is “operating in the red,” more than 30,000 people have signed on.

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Nushin Rashidian is the research lead on the Platforms and Publishers project at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. She also teaches at the Columbia Journalism School. @nushinrashidian