Pot shots

Two hot marijuana magazines are threatening High Times' hegemony.

By Colin Moynihan
July 19, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)
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Decades after its founding in 1974 by a political activist and former marijuana dealer named Tom Forgade, High Times magazine was a weird place to work.

Forgade, who started the monthly with proceeds from pot sales, was known as an exacting editor who frequently fired writers and killed stories, sometimes without warning or explanation. But during its tumultuous years High Times magazine also earned a reputation as a standard-bearer of anti-establishment journalism. In its heyday in the mid- and late-1970s, the magazine ran stories about the dismissal of Carter administration drug czar Peter Bourne (who was rumored to have used cocaine) and refuted widespread myths that marijuana fields were being sprayed with a dangerous chemical called paraquat. As a result of such reporting High Times received frequent national attention; its contributors were viewed by many as subversive anti-heroes.

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In 1978, at the height of the magazine's notoriety, Forgade killed himself in his New York home with a single shot from a pearl-handled revolver. In the years following his death, politics at High Times became even more byzantine, as those left behind struggled for editorial control. By the mid-'80s, the circulation of the magazine had dropped to an all-time low. It has since risen to just over 200,000, High Times sources say (the magazine is not audited by the Publishers Information Bureau). High Times, they are quick to add, has never been more stable or successful.

But now High Times' hegemony in the world of pot publications is being challenged. Next week, Heads, a new magazine run by former High Times editor Paul DeRienzo, will attempt to lure readers away from its rivals with what its founder described as a broader and more intellectual editorial formula. Meanwhile, Cannabis Culture, a 5-year-old Vancouver, British Columbia, dope magazine, has published a series of new articles and editorials assailing High Times, accusing the older magazine of corruption and complacency.

The popular stereotype of marijuana smokers and advocates portrays them as a mellow bunch, interested mainly in kicking back and getting high. But as editors, writers and photographers involved with High Times, Cannabis Culture and Heads recently discussed the imminent three-way battle of the pot publishing industry, their attitudes were anything but easygoing. Many who spoke hastened to point out shortcomings of the others. Few seemed inclined to pass a peace pipe.

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At stake in this competition is the attention of the 20 million to 30 million Americans who the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) estimates regularly smoke pot. Most of these are believed to be young men -- in other words, prime advertising targets, all the more desirable because of their presumed disposable income. After all, anyone able to afford ounces of pricey pot (ranging from $150 for garden variety to $500 for primo bud) must be able to spend money on other things, too.

At least that's the hope of those who pay High Times up to $6,670 and Cannabis Culture up to $1,700 for pages in which to advertise hookahs and water pipes, drug-test kits, books ("Pot Stories for the Soul" or "Aunt Mary Jane's Baking with Pot"), expert legal advice for victims of drug busts and citizenship in the United Nation of Rastafari (a "non-territorial, ecclesiastical sovereign nation").

For people offering such products and services, ads in pot magazines can reach an audience that is not available through more mainstream publications. "Many people who might be interested in us read High Times and Cannabis Culture," said a representative of the Quebec Seed Bank, who declined to give his full name. Advertisements for the Quebec Seed Bank, which show silver goblets overflowing with what appear to be marijuana buds, run regularly in both magazines. The representative pointed out that the readership of High Times and Cannabis Culture is greater than the number of subscribers because copies are typically shared by several readers. "They are the main magazines for our market," he added. "And the ads have been effective."

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But magazines such as High Times and Cannabis Culture are fearful that they may soon be censored, in part because of such ads. According to Cannabis Culture editor Dana Larsen, the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 2000, which has already been passed by both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, was amended in mid-June to include the Methamphetamine Anti-Proliferation Act. That act aims to censor information on manufacture of banned substances. In addition, Larsen says, the Senate's Ecstasy Anti-Proliferation Act and the House's Club Drug Anti-Proliferation Act (HR 4553) were introduced in late May as identical bills. They would increase the penalties for possession and manufacture of MDMA and GHB, and allocate millions of dollars for more police and for "school and community-based anti-ecstasy classes." The acts, Larsen says, would also ban "information pertaining to the manufacture, acquisition or use of a controlled substance."

The threat to the pot magazines is clear. In a story about the legislation in the current Cannabis Culture, Larsen wrote: "This provision would ban magazines like Cannabis Culture, pot grow books and even private conversation on how to grow buds." He went on to write, "The bill also bans advertising of 'illegal drug paraphernalia,'" and pointed out that "[t]his targets the advertising base of most pro-pot magazines."

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Cannabis Culture, an 80-page bimonthly that claims a circulation of about 70,000, originated as an advertising vehicle. It was begun as Cannabis Canada in 1995 by Marc Emery, a Canadian pot-seed impresario with a profitable mail-order business. To this day, Emery's seed listings, which subsidize Cannabis Culture, take up 10 pages at the front of the magazine, coming before even the masthead and table of contents. For three years the magazine was distributed only in Canada, but starting in summer 1998, the name was changed and it was also shipped to the United States, where it began competing with High Times. The two are often displayed side by side at newsstands.

It wasn't long before the upstart began taking aim at its more venerable rival. In its January/February issue, Cannabis Culture published a short piece questioning whether High Times was holding back money that was supposed to go to NORML. Larsen wrote later that when the piece was published on the Web, he was inundated with angry e-mails from High Times staffers who insisted that the story consisted of "idiotic rumors" and a "bundle of lies."

In his next issue, Larsen expanded the controversial piece. He wrote that when Forgade started High Times, he stipulated that half the profits of the magazine were to be given to NORML. Larsen also reported that a NORML official, Keith Stroup, stonewalled a Cannabis Culture writer who called to discuss the charges. Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of the NORML Foundation told Salon that the organization had looked into the matter. "NORML has no dispute with High Times," St. Pierre said. "We're satisfied that they don't owe us millions of dollars."

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Also in the March/April issue was a story about the Cannabis Cup, an annual pot competition in Amsterdam. The contest is sponsored by High Times, which issues $200 judging passes to anyone interested in smoking free weed and voting on its merits. In that story, Cannabis Culture writer Pete Brady took High Times to task for commercializing what he wrote had begun years before as a simple harvest celebration and alleged that voting had been rigged.

The attacks continued in the May/June issue of Cannabis Culture, which criticized High Times for publishing ads that hawk fake pot (Cannabis Culture staffers ordered some of the bogus weed through the mail and subjected it to lab tests) and ran an editorial chiding High Times for promoting a cultivation guide called "Pot for Pennies," which gave readers directions on how to build a cheap hydroponic growing system. The editorial contended that the book erred so much on the side of frugality that the described growing system could easily cause electrocution or a fire.

During a recent conversation, Larsen denied having an ax to grind, saying that there's plenty of room for his magazine and High Times to coexist. He also resisted analyzing High Times, at first saying only "I think that they could be better." But his feeling became more clear when he was asked to identify what made his magazine different than High Times.

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"We're willing to take more risks than they are," Larsen said. "We're faster, we're more political, and we consistently beat them on stories." He went on to describe High Times as moribund. "As you get older, you're less likely to rock the boat," Larsen said. "People who have been around for 20 or 30 years have a lot to lose and what becomes most valuable to them is money and security."

Larsen said that this attitude has caused High Times to become disconnected from readers. Referring to the fake pot ads, he said: "They suck. I would never buy ads like that. And when High Times ran those ads it lost them credibility and cost them money."

When contacted by Salon, High Times editor Steve Hager would not speak by telephone and asked that questions be sent to him. Responding by e-mail, Hager did not mince words while dismissing the accusations made by his antagonists. Calling Cannabis Culture a "seed catalogue with aspirations of being a magazine," Hager wrote "We deny the allegations and despise the alligators," and, referring to Cannabis Culture, added: "They want to hitch their wagon to our star. What little they know about marijuana they learned from us. Their need for publicity causes them to say anything to get attention." And while the many ads for imitation marijuana in High Times may have outraged the staff of Cannabis Culture, Hager wrote that the fake contraband does not fool readers. Similarly, Hager brushed aside the critique of the cultivation guide as "a tempest in a teapot."

Still, Cannabis Culture has continued to take pot shots at High Times. In the current issue is a triumphant announcement that Ed Rosenthal -- known to marijuana lovers far and wide as a pot-cultivation expert, who for 20 years wrote a column for High Times -- has defected to Cannabis Culture.

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Asked why Rosenthal jumped ship, High Times publisher Jim Ski responded in an e-mail message: "The quality and originality of Ed's work was depreciating severely, while his demands appreciated. Ed felt he was entitled to partial ownership of the company. These factors resulted in a parting of the ways between Ed and High Times."

Rosenthal agreed that there was a dispute over whether he was entitled to a share of the trust that ran High Times. But he defended the quality of the work he had done for the magazine. "There's a bit of jealousy there," he said, responding to Ski's description. "No matter how many times they polished the mirror on the wall, it told them that I wrote the most popular feature in the magazine. My writing is primary rather than derivative, which is more than many of them can say."

Although some former and current High Times staffers seem happy to exchange insults, DeRienzo, who worked as the managing editor of High Times for seven months in 1998, says he prefers to remain above the fray. While Hager wrote that he was fired because of blown deadlines and low sales, DeRienzo had little interest in discussing the circumstances of his departure.

"I've got nothing negative to say," he said recently as he sat in his East Village, N.Y., apartment looking over the proofs for the 96-page debut issue of Heads. "High Times and I just weren't a good fit."

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DeRienzo, who worked as a news reporter at WBAI, a New York community radio station, from 1988 to 1998 and covered such stories as the Tompkins Square riot of 1989 and the eviction of squatters from a row of city-owned buildings on East 13th Street in 1995 said he was looking forward to editing a more varied range of stories than he had at High Times.

"We will have a cooler appeal," he said as invoices from writers and photographers printed out across the room onto a long scroll of perforated paper. "And a more mature and intelligent readership. They will be interested not just in smoking but also in the vast issues raised by the counterculture." DeRienzo explained that Heads would begin as a bimonthly and switch to monthly publication in the fall, then flipped through his proofs, pointing out stories on Napster, genetically engineered food and racial profiling. There was also a story about the Chinese religious movement Falun Gong, which DeRienzo said was particularly interesting to Patrick Hamaoui, a Lebanese businessman who funds Heads.

DeRienzo said that his magazine and High Times would differ not only in their editorial content, but in the ads they carried. Among the ads scheduled to run in the first issue of Heads were ones for organic soap, clothing made of hemp and vegetarian snacks. DeRienzo picked up an issue of High Times and flipped through it to illustrate the contrast. He stopped at an ad for an electronic urinating device designed to beat drug tests. It showed a man holding a plastic cup beneath a tube that dangled from the fly of his jeans.

"There's stuff that they'll show that we won't show," DeRienzo said. "You can think of the difference between High Times and Heads as being pretty much the same as the difference between Hustler and Playboy. I like my approach better, but there's room for both."

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Others agree that there's room for more than one pot magazine and some even think the existence of a few will create healthy competition. John Penley is a photographer whose pictures have appeared in all three daily New York newspapers and many other publications. A few weeks ago he took pictures of Hells Angel Sonny Barger for an upcoming issue of Heads. He's also worked for High Times, photographing the 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and in 1990 documenting a violent clash between Mohawk Indians and Canadian police in Oka, Quebec. While Hager wrote that he's never heard of Penley, the photographer said that he was banned for life from High Times after he leaked word of DeRienzo's dismissal to Page Six editors at the New York Post.

"High Times has gotten a free ride for a long time," Penley said on a recent evening as he stood outside a newsstand on Avenue A waiting to buy an early edition of the next days Post. "There was only one pot magazine around and they were like a 300-pound gorilla. They intimidated people and acted like arrogant jerks because they felt like they had a monopoly." Penley mentioned that he was a veteran of the pot-legalization movement. In 1978, using the name John Ganga, he organized the first ever smoke-in at the University of Florida at Gainesville. Later he organized similar events in Atlanta and at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"Ultimately, no matter what happens with these magazines the pot movement is going to be the winner," he said. "Having three voices instead of one means that more points of view will be expressed. All three magazines will be forced, because of competition, to produce better work. And that's the point of having a free press."


Colin Moynihan

Colin Moynihan has written for the New Yorker, Outside, the Wall Street Journal and Metropolis. He is a regular contributor to the New York Times.

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