At 40, High Times branches out into partnerships and even a private equity fund

Go ahead, get the jokes out of your system. The staff of High Times, the counterculture drug magazine, has heard them all before.

For 40 years, they’ve put up with stoner quips and stereotypes. “People have this idea that we sit around and get high all day,” says Danny Danko, the magazine’s senior cultivation editor and author of its field guide to marijuana strains.

But as High Times celebrates its 40th anniversary with a special November issue that comes out Tuesday and is the largest in its history, the laughs are fewer and further between.

What started as an experiment by a mercurial provocateur and underground publisher has blossomed into an established brand, offering everything from licensing partnerships and an ever-expanding domestic events business to a just-launched private- equity fund. Along the way, something else changed: The magazine’s radical reason for being has stopped feeling so radical, even if the magazine itself hasn’t.

“There’s a feeling like now is our time in the sun,” said the editor in chief, Chris Simunek.

Associate Publisher Rick Cusick agreed: “For 40 years, if you stay in one spot, eventually the world comes around to where you are.”

The magazine was launched in the spring of 1974 by Thomas Forcade, who hoped to create a Playboy for drugs and the counterculture. “We’re fundamentally and seriously concerned with breakthroughs in human consciousness and pleasure,” Ed Dwyer, the founding editor, said in a news release celebrating the first issue’s success.

And although High Times launched with a focus on all drugs, the magazine has always held pot in special regard. “That was always one of the underpinnings of the magazine, that press for legalization,” Dwyer said.

The first issue outlined research showing what a “wonder drug” marijuana was, with benefits for asthmatics and glaucoma patients. Early issues featured stories such as “How to Make a Fortune After Legalization” and highlighted the 10 best planes for the “dope-smuggling pilot.”

For most of the magazine’s forty years, marijuana was completely illegal. But that changed in 1996, when voters in California approved the nation’s first medical-marijuana law. Other states followed, and today 23 states and the District of Columbia allow the use of medical marijuana.

Colorado and Washington state launched their historic experiments in legalization for recreational use this year, and voters in Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia will consider joining them this fall. Last year, for the first time in decades of polling on the question, both Pew and Gallup found a majority of Americans supported marijuana legalization.

High Times is looking to take advantage of that shift.

Editorial Director Dan Skye, whose name is a pseudonym, said the magazine is in the process of moving to larger offices from its current digs in midtown Manhattan.

The company said the anniversary edition has 164 pages — nearly half of them advertisements for pot-growing accessories, vaporizers and other paraphernalia. And Web traffic has grown exponentially this year, with June traffic peaking at more than 5 million visitors, according to Skye.

As a business, the magazine sees itself catering to the marijuana connoisseur interested in the latest growth techniques, strains and technologies. This fall, the company will hold its 27th annual Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam, a trade show and expo for the industry that includes a judging competition.

High Times continues to run big, glossy centerfolds of marijuana plants and to publish price quotes for various cities around the world, a feature included in the very first issue and known as Trans High Market Quotations. Depending on quality and provenance, the price for an ounce of marijuana ranged from $10 to $50 along the five-city “Acela corridor” in the spring of 1974, when the magazine launched. Today, the Strawberry Cough strain goes for $400 per ounce in New York, according to the 40th anniversary issue.

High Times is planning to convert its field guide to marijuana strains into a smartphone app — a Zagat guide for pot, said Mary McEvoy, the magazine’s publisher. Then there’s the private equity fund the company is launching to connect investors with pot start-ups.

“I think Tom Forcade would be very pleased with what they’re doing, for example, with this fund,” said Dwyer, the founding editor. “I think that’s just the sort of thing he had in the back of his mind: that if we get big enough, we’d be able to fund people to grow or distribute, or to fund legalization.”

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