A mirror telling patients to sign in shows the reflection of a magazine rack that displays copies of "High Times" magazine at a Hayward medicinal marijuana clinic. (John J. Kim/Cannifornia archive)


High Times magazine gets even higher as marijuana becomes more mainstream

The past few years have not been kind to magazines. The industry has seen its print readership and advertising dollars decline, forcing some magazines to fold and others to shrink.

Not so for pot-obsessed High Times. As the marijuana-legalization drive picked up steam, the niche publication added dozens of pages to its monthly magazine. And it has boosted circulation by double-digit percentages every year since 2013.

That newfound legitimacy was on display in San Bernardino earlier this year. High Times’ 2016 SoCal Medical Cannabis Cup festival went the way of Coachella and expanded to two weekends, bringing big music acts, serious lectures, intense competition and an expected 30,000 adults to the National Orange Show Events Center.

“I think it goes to show the scope of the possibilities as the laws continue to change,” said Danny Danko, senior cultivation editor at High Times. “It’s basically like we’re going from the underground to the mainstream.”

Activist Tom Forcade launched High Times in New York nearly 42 years ago as a spoof of Playboy, complete with an artful centerfold of the pot plant of the month.

The counterculture magazine soon rivaled Rolling Stone’s circulation, drawing writers like Hunter S. Thompson, who backed its legalization campaign.

Today, a majority of states have legalized medical marijuana. Four of those, plus Washington, D.C., also allow adults to use pot recreationally. And this month, California and nine other states considered measures to legalize adult use on their ballots.

As the stigma associated with marijuana fades, Danko, 43, said High Times has started to attract advertisers like Sony and coverage from traditional media. The magazine has also expanded its reach beyond print, producing an album, videos, “pot-casts” and live events like the ever-growing Cannabis Cup.

High Times launched Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam in 1988, with a few judges sampling from marijuana-friendly coffee shops, then meeting up to determine the best strains and enjoy some music. There are six Cannabis Cups planned this year, with guests paying upward of $55 a day and vendors paying at least a couple of thousand dollars to host booths.

The first SoCal cup was in 2012 at Los Angeles Center Studios. With L.A. and second-choice Glendale less than welcoming and crowds growing, organizers in 2013 moved to the 120-acre National Orange Show.

Third choice has turned out to be a charm. Though San Bernardino has a ban on marijuana businesses, its largest venue has become known for ganja-friendly events like Cypress Hill’s long-running SmokeOut Festival. And, Eileen Hards with the San Bernardino Police Department said, there have been very few issues at any of the pot-centric events over the past several years.

The first night of this year’s SoCal cup featured performances by Grammy-winning The Roots and the eclectic hip-hop trio De La Soul. The second weekend saw rappers Wiz Khalifa, Redman, Method Man and Ghostface Killah.

There was a “medicating” area restricted to medical marijuana cardholders. The rest of the expo, seminars, food trucks and concerts were open to anyone over 18, with the “canna-curious” welcome.

“This is an opportunity for like-minded people to come together and feel free to express themselves,” said attorney Michael Cindrich, co-founder of San Diego-based Gridiron Cannabis Coalition. “Oftentimes it’s kind of like a coming-out party.”

Cindrich’s organization hosted one of the festival’s more serious panels, advocating for NFL players to be able to use now-banned cannabis to treat the physical ailments they face. Kyle Turley, retired All-Pro offensive lineman for the New Orleans Saints, discussed his experience along with former players Eben Britton and Nathan Jackson.

But the heart of the event is still a competition.

It’s like a beer-tasting contest. Some 50 or 60 pot industry leaders competed in more than a dozen categories, including best sativa flower, edible and hybrid concentrate. A panel of experts eyes all the entries, smells them, samples them and judges their effects.

The entries are also put through lab tests, Danko said, with points for the highest concentrations of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol), the active compounds that give pot its effects.

There’s even a nod for “best booth,” for which Santa Ana-based dispensary Dr. Greenthumb, by B-Real of Cypress Hill fame, took second place during the 2015 cup.

A win typically means a boost for business, Danko said, with ever more attention being focused on those who are blazing the way, as it were.

Thanks to marijuana’s growing limelight, High Times has recently traded a bit of its underground image for a more buttoned-up one, hiring a CEO from Vevo and COO from iHeartMusic. And Danko says he’s OK with that.

“Along with that underground, rebel, outlaw mentality comes a lot of grief as far as people going to prison and being separated from their families and having their homes raided,” said Danko, who was a cultivator before joining High Times in 2002.

“There is more of a corporate attitude and environment, but the heart and soul of the underground will remain.”

This article was first published at OCRegister.com.