Baking Bad: A Potted History of ‘High Times’
High Times was conceived in classic outlaw fashion. Founded by a successful pot smuggler and radical ’60s activist named Thomas King Forçade, it was intended as a one-time parody of Playboy, complete with centerfolds of exotic, voluptuous cannabis plants. But that first issue was a runaway hit, selling more than half a million copies and paving the way for what has become a stoner-American institution. In addition to the requisite grow-scene surveys, pot-price appraisals and joint-rolling tips, High Times has published writers like Hunter Thompson, William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, Allen Ginsberg and Truman Capote. It also advocated an end to pot prohibiton at a time when marijuana users were being sentenced to years, even decades, in jail.
Forty years later, the magazine has much to celebrate. It has survived the untimely death of its founder, the graying of the counterculture and the dawn of the Internet age, and even some of the laws that created the need for a pro-pot magazine in the first place. It has weathered various government investigations and attacks; founded its annual Cannabis Cup competition in Amsterdam and, more recently, additional Cups in a number of US states, which rank among the biggest marijuana festivals in the world; and published a series of books on everything from cooking with weed to cannabis spirituality. Most importantly, its vision of a day when pot is accepted, even legal, is now proving to be much more than a pipe dream.
We caught up with some of the current and former editors of the self-styled “most dangerous magazine in America” to talk about their role in the long, hard fight for legalization—and their hopes for a cannabis-infused future.
Rick Cusick (associate publisher): High Times was founded by Thomas King Forçade, the number-one East Coast marijuana smuggler in the late ’60s–early ’70s. He was a true revolutionary. He came up with the idea of High Times in 1974.
Michael Kennedy (general counsel): At the time, I was practicing at an office in a town house that a lawyer and I owned together on East 78th Street. Tom would come in virtually daily and talk about one adventure or another. Tom’s primary activity was flying pot from Jamaica into South Florida, sometimes into Georgia or Alabama. And he was successful at it. It’s why one of the original High Times logos is an airplane—it’s a mock-up of a DC-3, because that’s what he would fly, loaded to the gills with marijuana. When he founded High Times, he founded it with that cash—because at the time, you could take cash to the bank and open up a bank account. So Tom started this magazine with dope money.
Rick Cusick: Tom died in 1978. He killed himself, and the memorial was attended by lawyers, pot dealers, rock stars and more lawyers. They wanted to have a special memorial, so they rented the top floor of the World Trade Center so they could be as high as they possibly could. They went to the top of the World Trade Center, and the editors of High Times and Keith Stroup from NORML approached the family and got a small amount of Tom’s ashes. And they took the ashes from the founder of High Times and mixed it in with an ounce of marijuana, and they smoked it on the roof of the World Trade Center. And they took a little bit and tossed it off. So I work for a company that smoked its founder. That’s culture.
Michael Kennedy: We were trying to decide how best to subvert the anti-marijuana laws. And one of the ways Tom came up with—and it’s really the seed of genius of High Times—is teaching people how to grow marijuana. Because if, in fact, you can teach people how to grow, and there’s a First Amendment right to teach, they can start growing under any imaginable circumstances—from your aunt’s sewing basket to a drawer in your college dorm. All you need is a paper towel and a little bit of water, and nature will take care of the rest. If everybody who wants to grow can learn how to grow, then there’s no way the government can possibly withstand that subversion.
Steve Hager (former editor in chief): After Tom died, Michael Kennedy stepped in and saved the company. I came in several years later.… You can imagine that the magazine, for years, had just been people doing drugs all day long. People would come in for photographs, and the art director would do lines of coke in the art room, and people would be smoking in every corner. It was nitrous balloons; it was… talk about fog. It just couldn’t run like that. I wanted it to be a magazine that changed the perspective people had on pot, because at that time, people thought it was the same as cocaine. And I wanted to draw a line and say, “No, no, no—coke is on this line.” It immediately took off and went from teetering on the verge of collapse to selling the best it ever sold.
Michael Kennedy: We started the Cannabis Cup in 1987. Steve Hager went to a half-dozen growers in the Netherlands—we called them “the Dutch Masters”—and said, “We’ll sponsor a Cup here in Amsterdam. Why don’t you bring your very best seeds, your very best buds?” We weren’t too interested in hash or oils back then. Certainly, there were no real edibles or lotions at the time.
Steve Hager: At first, we were just sending little skeleton crews of three people, and the company didn’t want to invest money in it, so I didn’t turn it into a public event until the fifth year. And I had this concept that we were going to base all of our ceremonies around 420, which is something nobody had ever heard of. What had happened was, I’d been sitting outside the office in the stairwell—the only place we could smoke a joint at that time; now we probably can’t smoke at all—and my news editor, Steve Bloom, was carrying a flier he’d picked up at a Grateful Dead show in Oakland. It said, “Come to Mount Tamalpais on April 20th at 4:20.” So I’m looking at this paper, and it says that people are going to meet at 4:20 on April 20 at the top of Mount Tamalpais to smoke pot together. And I think this was an emanation, a manifestation of the spiritual powers of cannabis. Calling its tribe to its Passover, to its Sermon on the Mount—it’s our baby infant religion, and it’s forming before our eyes.
Michael Kennedy: Today the Cannabis Cup is good branding, quite simply. It allows us to meet the new generation, the young growers. They’re really young and vibrant, God bless ’em. And there’s an entirely new breed of growers who studied agronomy, and studied botany and chemistry, and they are true, scientific twenty-first-century farmers. And they’re developing some of the finest weed imaginable.
Steve Hager: It’s a different event now. It’s a corporate event, and it’s not like what I was trying to do. I was trying to do a real spiritual thing, and when you bought your ticket, you were buying into something that charged your spiritual battery, if you were into that. Most people didn’t ever connect to it on that level—but the ones that did, we connected. We had a fun time, and we manifested a lot of incredible magic through that.