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High Times At 30, Getting Its Head Together 

 

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Source: Washington Post (DC)
Author: Peter Carlson, Washington Post Staff Writer
Published: Tuesday, April 20, 2004; Page C01 
Copyright: 2004 Washington Post 
Contact: [email protected]
Website: http://www.washingtonpost.com/ 

Man, the news from Iraq is, like, a major bummer. Read the mainstream press and all you get is bombings, murders, uprisings, riots and hostages. Fortunately, one publication dares to print the news that won't kill your buzz. 

That publication is High Times, the marijuana magazine now celebrating its 30th anniversary. And the news is this: There's plenty of weed in the new liberated Iraq. 

"There are few laws in Iraq right now," writes Dave Enders, High Times's man in Baghdad, "so although drug possession was punishable by death before, you can now pass a spliff openly in front of the cops." 

Which may not, come to think of it, be exactly the kind of freedom that President Bush envisioned for Iraq. 

Enders, a freelancer from Michigan, covers more than just the dope scene in Baghdad. He also writes about U.S. soldiers and the nutty do-gooders who've swarmed into Iraq and about Hamid, "a 26-year-old translator/bodyguard/heavy-metal fan." Hamid was an Iraqi soldier until he deliberately shot himself in the leg to avoid fighting the Americans and now smokes weed and writes protest lyrics set to the tune of "The Wall" by Pink Floyd: "We don't need no occupation, We don't need no CPA. . . . " 

"The desire to leave," Enders concludes, "is the only thing US soldiers and Iraqis have in common." 

Enders's entertaining piece is a good example of High Times's new editorial policy -- less dope, more reality. High Times still covers the weed -- and runs full-color centerfolds of voluptuous pot buds -- but since January it has expanded its coverage of the rest of the world. In recent issues, High Times has published articles on prostitution, bike messengers, comedian Dave Chappelle, a Colombian guerrilla, singer Ani DiFranco, education reform and a piece on Arnold Schwarzenegger by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Gary Webb. 

"The idea is to elevate the argument instead of just preaching to the converted," says Richard Stratton, High Times's new publisher and editor in chief. "We want to attract new readers, including people who might not smoke pot." 

But this new, improved High Times is not universally popular in the stoned-out-of-their-mind community. One irate subscriber, who described himself as "a 51-year-old retired ironworker," wrote a letter to the editor lambasting the new mag as "a collection of useless rhetoric." Another, who called himself "Fast Eddie," wrote: "This is sabotage." 

To keep its baked base happy, High Times has launched a spinoff magazine, Grow America, a bimonthly that's a lot like the old High Times -- packed with tips on how to grow pot and recipes for such illicit delicacies as "Chef Ra's Blueberry Ganja Muffins." There are also lots of pictures of the weed, pictures that are very popular with readers who may be too stoned to actually, you know, read. 

"We sometimes call it a form of pot pornography," says Steve Bloom, the 15-year High Times veteran who now runs Grow America. "If you're a little high and you just want to look at pretty pictures, you can get fixated on the centerfold and you take out a magnifying glass and look at all those snowy flakes -- that's the resin, that's what gets you stoned. People like to look at that." 

The weed pictured in Grow America's centerfolds is authentic dope but the buds pictured in ads selling "Legal Buds" for $59 a pound are, Bloom says, frauds that don't get you high. 

"They're kind of taking advantage of gullible readers," Bloom says. "It's a borderline scam." 

So why accept the ads? 

"It pays the bills," he says. 

But those ads will never again appear in High Times, Stratton vows: "The ads for fake pot have to go." 

Stratton, 58, was a business partner of Thomas Forcade, who founded High Times in 1974. The magazine was an immediate success, rolling up a circulation of more than 400,000 and selling lots of ads for marijuana paraphernalia. 

But in 1978, Forcade committed suicide and in 1982, Stratton was busted for pot smuggling. His defense was that he wasn't smuggling, he was just gathering material for a book on smuggling. But the jury didn't buy it, and Stratton ended up serving eight years in federal prison. 

After his release, Stratton produced the movies "Slam" and "Whiteboys" and founded Prison Life magazine, which offered advice to inmates on such jailhouse topics as in-cell cooking and absentee parenting. It folded after three years. 

Meanwhile, High Times endured under other editors, despite the fierce opposition of the federal government. Over the years, three grand juries have investigated the magazine, says its lawyer, Michael Kennedy, but none ever issued an indictment. "The dear old First Amendment is really very valuable," Kennedy says. 

But the feds hurt High Times by cracking down on its advertisers and arresting the purveyors of pot paraphernalia and marijuana-growing equipment. Imprisoned entrepreneurs don't tend to spend much money advertising in High Times. 

By the time Stratton took over last fall, ad revenue had dropped and circulation (which is not audited) was down to about 150,000, he says. So he decided to appeal to a broader swath of readers and advertisers. To help him, Stratton hired a new executive editor -- John Buffalo Mailer, the 25-year-old son of novelist Norman Mailer and an actor and playwright who was in recent years named one of the sexiest men alive by People magazine. 

Together, Stratton and Mailer hope to make High Times a smart mag with a wider appeal. A recent speaking engagement at Wesleyan University convinced Stratton that their efforts are working. 

"When I was at Wesleyan," he says, "a young woman said to me, 'I used to buy the magazine and leave it around just to [tick] off my parents. Now, I buy the magazine and I read it.' " 

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