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High Times: A 40 Year History of the World's Most Infamous Magazine

Screen Shot 2014-09-30 at 6.12.18 PM.pngIn honor of their 40th anniversary, High Times is looking back on their history as radical and necessary purveyors of counterculture. The result is a stunning book, High Times: A 40 Year History of the World's Most Infamous Magazine -- out today from powerHouse Books -- that doubles as a cannabis-fueled time machine through interviews and images. Mixing politics and thought leaders with a whole lot of weed, it's easy to see how the pot publication became a cultural cornerstone. Former cover stars and contributors included Andy Warhol, Debbie Harry, Stevie Nicks, Noam Chomsky, Charles Bukowski, and the Wu Tang Clan.

Founded in 1974, High Times has had its share of dank highlights and cocaine-bogged low points throughout its history. Below, we chat with the current Editor-in-Chief Dan Skye -- who has been with the publication since 1991 -- about the new book, the magazine's legacy, and what's in store for High Times' future as the weed legalization movement progresses.

It seems like everyone who was peripherally involved with High Times at the beginning has a different origin-story for the magazine. Why are there so many different versions of the story?

It's not really that highly contested. I think everyone just wants to say they were there. Tom Forcade was pretty much a visionary. He came up with all these ideas and he had the ability to make these things happen. This idea of making [High Times] a real magazine that could really address the idea of drugs and alternative consciousness was pretty much his alone. It's like everybody says they're at Woodstock -- Woodstock would've had to have 5 million people there if that many people were there.

playboyhightimes.jpgBut High Times started as a Playboy parody?

Yeah, it used the template of Playboy -- the Playboy interview with the centerfold. And it tried to address drug news in the same way Playboy addressed sex news. That was basically it but it was such an incredible hit. Everybody wanted it, I mean absolutely everybody. It was reprinted four times and there's four different versions of that first cover so the original one is very valuable.

Tommy Chong wrote the foreword to the book. He wrote "[High Times] defined us, just like we defined High Times." Can you talk about Cheech and Chong's relationship to the magazine?  

Well you see, the thing is, Tommy may be a big stoner -- and the character that he plays acts like a complete goofball -- but Tommy is a very, very serious man, especially when it comes to cannabis. He is very humorous about it and he has very fresh ideas about it. In our community Tommy is very deified. He's the guy who's been there from the beginning, championing pot. He went to jail for a year for his bong company -- this is a guy who's really been out there. He's really considered one of us.

He's been on the cover eight times -- three times alone and five times with Cheech & Chong. When they were united in the 2008 November cover, which I shot by the way, it was our biggest seller of the year. People just wanted that issue -- not only for "historical status," if you will, but also because they love Cheech & Chong. If High Times were baseball, he'd be our Babe Ruth.  

What's the circulation of High TImes, by the way? 

Well, it's a private company and we are not audited so we keep that information to ourselves. 

Oh, okay. 

But we do extremely well. We're growing. We've added 24 pages in the last year. At the beginning of 2012 we were at 140-pages -- we're now at 160 pages. 

High Times has a history of being an "outlaw" magazine. But now that mainstream magazines are covering pot (like Elle, who just published a piece called "5 Pro Tips to Throwing a Classy Cannabis Party") and weed is becoming decriminalized -- and in some cases, legal -- how has that affected the magazine's outlook? 

I think we're seeing it now. If we've gained this many pages you can see how many people are suddenly turned on to cannabis. The Gallup poll a year ago said that 58% of people favored the legalization of pot.

But keep in mind that it's not that normalized at all. It's only Washington and Colorado where adults can smoke. And in a lot of states -- in Nebraska -- you're taking your life into your hands. You can get some serious time for smoking pot. And in New York it's the same way. In New York City we have some of the highest arrest rates for smoking pot on the street. You wouldn't believe it. 50,000 people are being arrested a year for simply possession. So it's not a safe thing yet. That's the one reason we're glad we're out here in New York City. If we were out in California or Colorado or Washington -- where things are a lot more normalized -- I think we might be a little bit jaded and we might not take this issue as seriously as we do. 

One of our big things is getting people out of jail. That's really what it's about right now. If the struggle is ending then people need to get out of jail. 

Back in July, the New York Times finally endorsed legal weed in their article, "Repeal Prohibition, Again." A lot of news outlets took the cynical view and called the Times out for their previously aiding and abetting the war on marijuana or for simply being late to the party. But High Times, on your website, reacted positively and encouragingly. 

Oh, yeah. Danny Danko, our cultivation editor, said it was like mom and dad finally giving their approval. That's really how it felt. 

We have these cannabis cups six times a year -- next year we'll probably have eight -- and we have them all over the country. But at that time we were in Michigan and we announced [the New York Times endorsement] over the loud speakers at our event. The crowd absolutely roared. That was a big thing for everybody. Everybody realizes the milestone. 

But we want everybody under our umbrella. We want The New York Times saying positive things about cannabis, at last. We're willing to forgive them for using very poor journalism about cannabis for years when the evidence was out there.

Screen Shot 2014-09-30 at 6.19.24 PM.pngLooking back on 40 years of High Times, in the '70s and early '80s it seemed like the magazine was focused on weed and other drugs as they interlinked with other counterculture movements. You had Charles Bukowski writing alongside spliff tutorials. You had a lot of culturally impactful writers doing work for the magazine. 

Yeah, one Christmas issue we had Andy Warhol and Truman Capote on the cover. That was the golden age of journalism. All these brand new magazines were coming out and we were able to take advantage of that. 

Do you still feel like High Times has that same dialogue with culture?   

Well, the publicists are a pain in the ass to work with now and they don't want their clients coming to High Times. It's always difficult to get an actor on the cover of High Times or even in the interview slot. But I do think we still have the same kind of caché. We might not have the all-star journalists that we had before -- we have people now that have a very specific understanding of cannabis and of drugs and of alternative consciousness. 

Screen Shot 2014-09-30 at 6.12.36 PM.jpgIn the '80s it seemed like High Times started to cover drugs outside of weed. There was a lot of cocaine. Was that kind of a weird time, in terms of identity, for the magazine? 

Well I wasn't there at the time but our first cover that featured cocaine was a story about the Bolivian drug war and how cocaine was destroying the country. In the early '80s we were trashing cocaine even while we were covering it. 

But those centerfolds were extremely alluring at the time. When cocaine was in its heyday, High Times was along for the ride. But we did a quick turnaround, primarily due to the Editor-in-Chief at the time, Steven Hager, who really transformed the magazine. He turned it back to cannabis in a big way when he became editor-in-chief in the late '80s. He gets a great deal of credit for turning the magazine around and bringing it back to its roots.

Screen Shot 2014-10-14 at 12.53.18 PM.pngSpeaking of editorial changes, you wrote in the book that in 2003 -- when Richard Stratton and John Buffalo Mailer took over the magazine -- there was a moment when the vision for High Times was to get rid of the pot and become a purely literary journal. What was that about?

That was an odd time. I don't think anybody really looks back at that time with a lot of fondness. That was a mistake. I think they tried to take the magazine in a direction that wasn't really needed. We were doing very well with cannabis. I think they thought that they could take High Times and make it much more of a mainstream magazine. The fact is High Times is High Times.

Yeah, it seems pointless without the weed.

It was a short experiment. The less about that time period, the better.

Would you be open to talking about the weirdest thing you've encountered at the High Times office?

In the office... jeez, I'll tell ya'... Well, that kind of stuff I couldn't tell you. But I've been a marijuana journalist for over 20 years and I've had some crazy things happen.

I knew some Arizona pot smugglers who were getting it from the Mexicans back in the late '90s. I kept asking them if I could shoot a load of pot and they wouldn't let me. But finally they said, "Okay. You can do it." So I drove around with them all day -- they were making phone calls from phone booths, making sure the drop was gonna happen. They kept changing phone booths and then finally we went to a parking lot outside of Phoenix [to do the drop].

I was waiting in the car and watching them converse. The Mexican guy behind the wheel keeps looking at me, getting more and more animated. And finally, the smuggler walks over to me and goes, "Yeah, Okay. You can shoot the load but you're going to have to drive it." So I did. I had a hundred pounds of pot in the back of the car and I had the smugglers driving behind me. They told me to drive safely, but if I got pulled over by a cop they'd drive like complete assholes to get his attention.

Amazing. If you could get anyone on the cover of High Times -- regardless of their publicist -- who would you want?

It would be great to get Miley [Cyrus] on the cover. I think Miley's cool. She's a young woman who is really enjoying herself. I'm not a fan of her music, by any means, but I think she's fun. A couple of years ago I would have said Jennifer Aniston. We know she smokes pot -- both her and Brad. Those two on the cover would have been huge.

What about Martha Stewart?

I've asked her for an interview and she said no, but she was very, very pleasant about it. I think her being in jail turned her head around, as far as why people are in jail -- all these women who are non-violent drug offenders.

Screen Shot 2014-10-14 at 12.57.18 PM.pngIn my mind, I've always linked High Times to bro culture. It never seemed like a magazine for women who smoked weed. The imagery and the references seem like they are geared toward men. Do you feel like that is the intent? 

Well, I think that for a long time men were primarily the growers. A lot of men were leading the movement when it first started out. There were very prominent guys like Jack Herer and Steve DeAngelo, but now women are an equal component in this community, as far as their leadership in business and in activism.

I just don't think many women smoked back then [when the magazine first started]. It was kind of a male thing. Smoking pot was just so forbidden and so dirty to so many people. But now women and men equally embrace it -- it's not a male-oriented thing anymore.

As far as the magazine goes, we've had a "Women on Pot" issue with Mila Jovovich on the cover in 1994 and before that we had a "Women of the Marijuana Movement" issue in 1991. That was a big cover. But we haven't done a women on pot cover in years. But it's a feature that's worth doing for us because, as I said, women make up half of the movement now.

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