Cannabis Media Isn’t a Walk in the Park, Just Ask Thomas King Forçade

Founded in 1974 by the rambunctious underground journalist Thomas King Forçade, High Times became the preeminent cannabis and counterculture publication of its kind. It platformed the ‘cream of the underground press,’ including William Burroughs, Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, and many others. 

Following the recent legalisation of marijuana in the 2010s, the publication looked to show no signs of stopping either. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. For all its hype, it became known in December 2019 that High Times may soon go up in smoke. 

Printing Presses, Rolling Papers, and Pies

The story of High Times is more than just a pot enthusiast’s walk down memory lane. It’s also a critical study in running a profitable media business. 

Consider the cannabis publication’s leading man: Thomas King Forçade.

Like many in the cannabis industry, Forçade began as an activist following his graduation from the University of Utah. In leveraging his business administration degree, and after falling out of the United States Air Force, he founded a small literary magazine called Orpheus in 1966. It was here that he brought together many of the then-unheard-of voices from the underground press.  

After using Orpheus as a gathering place for alternative writing, he found himself in charge of the Underground Press Syndicate (UPS) in New York in 1968. The UPS promoted counterculture news publications like the Berkeley Barb, The Paper, Fifth Estate, and many others. Under the leadership of Forçade, the collective flourished. 

By 1971, it included 271 affiliate members throughout the United States. He helped fund the project with $25 (~€22) membership fees and sold microfilm rights of all UPS insiders to libraries across the country.  

Parchment Paper and Black Writing

(Source: The Rag)

Membership in the group was simple. If a magazine’s editorial was willing to exchange free publishing rights with any other member, it was in. 

Functionally, it brought together the New Left movement of the early sixties, gave novice journalists a place to sharpen their teeth, and published some of the most ambitious political content of the period. All of this passed through Forçade’s office before being repackaged and redistributed.

It exposed him to starlets of the writing world at that time. One senior member following UPS and the rise of independent media described Forçade as inevitably developing ‘an eye for writers.’ He was also rubbing shoulders with leading activists from the women’s liberation movement, civil rights advocates, and, invariably, those fighting against President Richard Nixon’s ‘War on Drugs’ campaign launched in 1971.

Nixon’s idea was to convince the American public that cannabis and counterculture went hand-in-hand. An aid at that time, John Ehrlichman, later told Harper’s Magazine in 1994 that: 

‘The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalising both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.’

Many on the left saw Nixon’s ploy for what it was: an indirect attack on their cultural. The administration used their War on Drugs as an excuse to silence any contentious voices who threatened Nixon’s campaign. Following in Lyndon Johnson’s footsteps, Nixon continued to harass, censor, and disrupt what was defined as ‘dissident’ Americans. 

This meant intimidating printing presses and advertisers who worked with the UPS until eventually, Forçade, like many others, was brought before the newly-formed Commission on Obscenity and Pornography.

And like any good counterculturalist, Forçade rebelled. 

Not only had he prepared a lengthy retort to the behavior of the Nixon administration, but he concluded his speech by dumping a whipped pie on the head of Commissioner Otto Larsen. The event inspired others to begin ‘pieing’ political figures as a form of protest.

It marked the sewing of the first seeds of a new kind of cannabis publication.

The Playboy of Pot

In the summer of 1974, Forçade unofficially printed the very first issue of what would later become High Times. Hardly a magazine, he wanted to make a publication that reminded readers of Playboy. Instead of naked models, he replaced the photos with pictures of cannabis including a large centerfold of green bud. 

Initially a joke, the first 10,000 copies sold out almost immediately. It was clear that there was a thriving community for exactly this kind of publication. 

Blue Woman Holding Mushroom

(Source: Wikipedia)

He funded the nascent business via a lucrative cannabis smuggling trade too. In a 2013 interview with Forçade’s attorney, Michael Kennedy, The Nation reported that Forçade would often regale his lawyer with lucrative tales of ‘flying pot from Jamaica into South Florida.’ Kennedy said:

‘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.’

And just like any other legitimate media business, Forçade brought on advertisers that represented the High Times audience. Companies making bongs, rolling papers, tobacco, and other cannabis-adjacent products filled up ad space. Articles promoted cannabis activism and mocked the Nixon administration and the FDA for its stance on the plant.

After just four years, the publication was being printed on a monthly basis and competed for attention with the likes of The Rolling Stones and The National Lampoon

That same year, however, Forçade committed suicide following the death of a close friend.

The loss of their fearless leader and the rise in popularity of harder drugs, specifically cocaine and heroin, saw High Times enter its first of many downturns. The editorial during the 1980s strayed from their roots to cover this trend until the publication reached its lowest point ever. That is until Steven Hager joined and eventually took over the editorial in 1988. With it, Hager brought the budding hip hop culture with him to the publication.

He congregated the very first Cannabis Cup and steered High Times back to its original focus on cannabis. From articles on how to grow quality cannabis in your closet and continued activism, one can understand this period as a sort of golden era of the publication. 

Hager was eventually replaced by cannabis columnist Mike Edison in 1998. For his part, Edison helped produce High Times’ first feature film, turned the magazine into an advertising powerhouse, and launched three websites for the publication before leaving in 2001. 

Indeed, the next logical step was for the publication to patiently wait for widespread legalisation.

The Center Of The Cannabis Universe 

Legalisation in California also meant that High Times thought it best to move to the Golden Bear State. After 43 years, Forçade’s publication packed its bags and moved to Los Angeles in 2017. 

The University of Southern California’s (USC) Director of the School of Communication, Larry Gross, said at that time that the move made fiscal sense adding “there’s no question the changes in the legal environment have made it much easier for potential ad money to be available.”

These returns quickly translated into expanding the publication’s operations. 

Its parent company High Times Holding Corp. concluded a $6.9 million (~€6.17 million) acquisition of media company Green Rush inc. a year after the move. They also picked up Dope magazine for $11.2 million (~€10 million) and Culture magazine for another $4 million (~€3.5 million). 

Dan Skye, the current editorial director, said that further ‘legalisation will only make things better for High Times.’ 

Shortly after the spate of acquisitions, the company announced a Regulation A+ initial public offering (IPO) in hopes of riding the green gold rush. The former CEO of High Times, Adem Levin, said in the announcement that he wanted to ‘give the High Times faithful as well as the broader cannabis industry a chance to share in this incredible moment where High Times transforms into a multi-platform, multi-dimensional public enterprise.’

Two Men Shaking Hands

Levin shaking hands with former Mexican President Vicente Fox Quesada. Fox was brought as an advisor due to his steady advocacy for cannabis legalisation since leaving office in 2006.

(Source: High Times)

This IPO, however, has proven to be much more troublesome than expected. 

Following several extensions of the offer, which has now dragged on for more than a year, some investors have been left scratching their heads. In the latest, the CFO of High Times Holdings left the firm before the offering’s conclusion in August 2019. 

They have even resorted to accepting cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin to help conclude the sale of the nearly five million shares. In an SEC Filing from December 2019, High Times Holding finally explained that ‘there is substantial doubt about the company’s ability to continue.’ 

Such financial uncertainty has spread far beyond just High Times, of course. Indeed, 2019 has been a year of steep dips in the price of many of the major cannabis stocks. Candian cannabis firms like Aurora, Canopy Growth, Aphria, and others are all still working to escape the bear market. The media space, as evidenced by High Times, is much the same

Civilized, which counted famed comedian Chelsea Handler as an investor, has reported a burn rate of more than $10 million (~€8.9 million) since its launch. MassRoots, another cannabis-centric media outlet, also reported hefty losses this summer. 

The conclusion to all this appears more related to the difficulty behind running a media business in the Internet age. Outside of cannabis, nearly all forms of media are scrambling for new business models. Indeed, the answer isn’t simply capital injection, but outside-of-the-box thinking.

Despite his preference for obscurity, one does wonder: what would Thomas King Forçade do to save his publication?

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