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High and mighty (continued)

THE HIGH TIMES offices are, appropriately enough, high. Perched on the 16th floor of a Park Avenue skyscraper in downtown Manhattan, the countercultural magazine’s home base shares a floor with the law offices of Michael Kennedy — perhaps the reason why there’s no High Times cover gallery in the building lobby, no recent issue to thumb through in the waiting room.

The office is spacious and filled with natural light, and boasts a panoramic view of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building. Employee attire is casual: hooded sweatshirts, T-shirts, sneakers; one designer wears an ’80s-era Metallica T-shirt that says METAL UP YOUR ASS. Although deadlines are ever looming, there aren’t any grimaces or looks of consternation here, no pursed lips or frantic stress. As might be expected of a magazine whose employees work on all things marijuana, everyone looks pretty damn happy.

These days, an egalitarian management style obtains at High Times, with a "triumvirate" of editors at the helm. Of the three, Cusick is the financial strategist, a former ad director whose business acumen helps shape the magazine’s editorial vision. David Bienenstock, who’s presently in Amsterdam, provides the youthful humor to the editorial-management balance; he’s a 29-year-old writer/editor/documentary filmmaker who’s worked at the magazine for nearly three years. The third editor is 50-year-old Bloom, a laid-back, no-bullshit kind of guy. He’s the elder statesman of the masthead; before his High Times tenure began in 1988, he freelanced and wrote two books, one about video games, the other about short basketball players.

The High Times office is a friendly, discursive environment. When the film American Beauty comes up at the lunch table, the magazine’s staffers don’t deconstruct the plot, they guffaw at the ludicrousness of Kevin Spacey’s character doling out $2000 for half an ounce of weed. And High Times would know what’s laughable; for years, they’ve run a column called "Trans-High Market Quotes" (THMQ), a list of prices submitted by readers who’ve bought bud on the black market. (In the upcoming May 2005 issue, "Maui Wowie" is listed at $500 per ounce in Boston, "Strawberry Cough" at $480 per ounce in New York, and "Donkey Shit" at $300 per ounce in Illinois.)

Danny Danko, a contributing writer to the magazine’s Grow section, keeps a "Kook File," a thick ream of correspondence from unhinged readers. It also includes three "Publication Denial Notifications" from prisons refusing receipt of the magazine. "Publication contains information regarding the manufacture of explosives, weapons, and drugs," read the notices.

Bloom has just returned from Miami, where he attended the High Times–sponsored annual Bob Marley Caribbean Festival. Sitting at his desk in an office that’s covered wall-to-wall with DVDs and videotapes like How High and Dazed & Confused and books by Hunter S. Thompson and Camille Paglia, he explains how High Times manages to continue doing what it does. Most important, he says, the First Amendment allows them the freedom of speech to write about whatever they want, contraband or not. "That’s how we can publish this magazine about an illegal subject without being censored, without being harassed." As for their dope-photo shoots, well, they’re not so constitutionally protected. "The large variety of stuff you see in the magazine is technically illegal," Bloom concedes. "If the government wants to look into that, I suppose they would. I hope they don’t. I hope they have better things to worry about than where the pot is coming from for a High Times photo shoot." He pauses. "Anyway, I think they’d create a cause célèbre by busting High Times."

Another theory holds that the government actually likes having High Times around. Last year, the Smoking Gun Web site reported that the Drug Enforcement Administration has three subscriptions to the magazine. "[It’s possible] they like High Times existing because they can kind of hear and see, ‘Okay this is what drug culture is doing now. This is their latest method of concealment,’ or whatever," says Bloom. "We try not to give away too many secrets in the magazine, but at the same time, readers do want to know, how do you conceal marijuana when you’re going across a border? So if we say, ‘Vacuum pack,’ well, aren’t the authorities going to read that and go, ‘Hmm ... vacuum pack? They’re getting smart.’ So maybe they want us out there — which is not to say we’re doing their job in any way, shape, or form, or have any relations to the DEA.

"But what are we going to do?" he continues. "We want to help people, but we also want to do it in subtle ways. So it’s sort of a battle back and forth."

SO WHAT would High Times be without reefer? In 2003, the publication’s parent company, Trans-High Corporation (THC), found out. In the wake of Operation Pipe Dreams, the magazine’s retail sales began to lag, and advertising was on the decline. "It hurt us advertising-wise because they went after a lot of our advertisers," Bloom recalls. "So we suffered a drop-off, probably a 20 percent advertising drop-off due to that." There’d also been a consensus that High Times was graying under the leadership of editor Steve Hager. So THC decided to overhaul the magazine completely, bringing in ex-con-turned-television-exec Richard Stratton as publisher and Norman Mailer’s son John Mailer Buffalo, then a 25-year-old playwright, as editor. The duo’s prescription for a revamped High Times? Weed out the weed to increase the magazine’s profitability.

"It was an attempt to mainstream," notes Bloom. "But it’s hard to mainstream High Times. Marijuana may gradually be getting more mainstream, but it’s illegal — and that’s what we’re known for — which makes it kind of hard to mainstream this magazine."

"We’re using pot as a metaphor," Mailer told the New York Times after he’d come aboard, a comment that still makes staffers roll their eyes. As the new management steered the publication in a politically progressive direction, High Times’ tagline switched from the renegade "Celebrating the counterculture" to the bland "Celebrating freedom." On the cover, celebrities like comedian Dave Chappelle, folk singer Ani DiFranco, and actor Michael Weber supplanted the deified-, quasi-eroticized bud showcase.

But High Times without herb was like Penthouse without breasts, Popular Mechanics without cars, O without Oprah. The transformation failed miserably. "We tried to become somewhere in between High Times and the Nation," recalls Bloom. "There were some readers out there who liked that shit, but I think those were the readers who weren’t the real hard-core smokers. The vast majority of readers didn’t really respond positively to that change. They felt that we had betrayed them and left a vast majority of them behind."

THC’s immediate response was to start publishing a supplementary magazine, Grow America, a 100,000-circulation quarterly that complemented the new version of High Times. Into the new publication went the cannabis coverage. Says Bloom, "Grow America protected us during this perilous period." Still, financial losses mounted, morale dropped, and some employees started hunting for jobs. "It was a difficult time emotionally, financially, spiritually," reflects Cusick.

Stratton and Mailer left after a year. THC replaced them with the three "survivors" who’d weathered the stormy period: Cusick, Bloom, and Bienenstock. The trio made a deliberate decision to cater to the younger 18-to-25-year-old demographic. Under the new team, the articles are shorter. There are more sidebars. The content is more pop-cultural. And the adjustment has already paid off: in only five months, advertisers have returned and the magazine’s circulation has rebounded to 175,000 and climbing.

Above all, as High Times’ January 2005 issue proudly announced, THE BUDS ARE BACK!

"Thank God," sighs Cusick. "We have the bud back."

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