There's not a hint of cannabis smell at the offices of 420 Times. There are no posters of a smiling Bob Marley igniting a spliff, no pictures of bikini-clad girls cradling ripened buds of kush. If there is a bong on the premises, it is hidden away. And when the magazine's editor, Dave Brian, suddenly rises from his chair, complaining of recurring back pain, he reaches not for the ganja but a bottle of Advil.
Brian may seem an unlikely proselytizer for California's fast-growing medical-marijuana community, and admits he's only an occasional user, but he also knows marijuana helped his aunt to get through her breast-cancer treatment. She represents the target audience for his monthly 420 Times, which he defines as "the other 95 percent" of potential users, who see it mainly as medicine and don't identify much with traditional High Times, head-shop pot culture. "We're not the bikini, rainbow, unicorn magazine," he says with a grin.
420 Times is the newest (and still smallest) of a tidal wave of publications aimed at the L.A. medical-marijuana community and its previously untapped well of advertising dollars. While pot dispensaries are a booming business — the Weekly has determined that 545 dispensaries are operating across the city — times remain tough for print media, with staggering drops in readership and ad revenue leading to layoffs at both The New York Times and L.A. Times. Even Condé Nast shuttered several of its esteemed national magazines last year. The new pot press is one of print's few growth industries.
"I always wanted to do a magazine, and here's one that can support itself," says Brian, 42, who produces 420 Times out of a small advertising firm in Burbank.
His competitors include two free monthlies thick with ad pages: Kush L.A., and the 4-year-old L.A. JEMM, still the largest local pot magazine at 166 oversize pages this month between glossy covers. The magazines serve what Kush publisher Michael Lerner calls "a multibillion-dollar market," delivering political coverage of City Hall indecision along with cannabis recipes, tips on how to roll and interviews with Cheech & Chong.
In JEMM, photo pages from public events show pot advocates posing with cheerful L.A. City Council members, even cornering antipot City Attorney Carmen Trutanich. The pocket-size Patients Guide Los Angeles features starred reviews of various pot strains and a dispensary phone directory.
"Can you believe how many magazines there are?" says Lerner, whose company has expanded Kush into other cities. "And you talk to them: 'Oh, we started last November in our garage.' In every city we open in, we see that, but it doesn't bother us because we're full [of ads]."
Business is excellent. "These publications are expanding, and it stands for the proposition that this community is not going away," says Eric Shevin, an L.A.-based attorney for NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws). "And it's creating jobs."
It's a young industry, where key players are still emerging, and the rules of engagement are fluid and often don't meet professional standards. The result is a Wild West moment: Full-page pot ads include copyrighted images of Marilyn Monroe, Homer Simpson and the Incredible Hulk — corporate properties unlikely to be licensed to a corner marijuana shop.
The single largest local pot publication remains L.A. JEMM (Los Angeles Journal for Education on Medical Marijuana). Its publisher-editor is Ruben Mac Blue, a local hard-rock fanatic who goes back to the earliest punk-rock days of the Masque club in the mid-'70s.
For decades, Blue has been the man behind Rock City News, a labor of love targeting the less celebrated corners of the underground music scene. Until recently, Blue reserved prime, page 1 space for his own enraged anti–George W. Bush screeds. In 2005, he presciently courted the new society of above-ground pot dispensaries, born from the state's 1996 Compassionate Use Act and a 2003 state law permitting collective cultivation. L.A. JEMM is the result.
As the revenue poured in, Rock City News evolved from a thin publication into a full-color newspaper.
Blue refused to comment for this article in protest of L.A. Weekly's critical coverage of failures by the City Council and the mayor to regulate the local marijuana industry. (The City Council did finally act on Tuesday, after years of delay, by giving tentative approval to a law that would allow only 137 of the city's current 545 medical-marijuana dispensaries. The others would eventually be forced to close because they operate within 1,000 feet of schools, churches or rehab centers.)
JEMM's presence in the marijuana community is impossible to ignore. Despite its many lucrative ad pages, which the magazine's Web site says fetch $715 apiece, the magazine still shows the rough edges of an underground paper, a kind of monthly compendium of pot-related articles gathered at random from across the country. The January 2010 issue includes articles reprinted from Time, Bloomberg News and The Wall Street Journal. Those articles would be fairly expensive to acquire — if the publication sought permission.
Also in the current issue are three articles from the L.A. Times — two by staff writer John Hoeffel, one by columnist Steve Lopez — and two pieces from the L.A. Daily News, including one from City Hall columnist Rick Orlov.
Both dailies tell the Weekly that the material was used without permission or payment, and each newspaper plans to issue a cease-and-desist letter to JEMM.
"It seems like they lack standards and ethics," says Daily News Executive Editor Catalina Garcia. "They clearly didn't bother to ask. You just don't do that."
Kush launched its Los Angeles flagship edition last year from its elegant two-story office building in Calabasas, and has already expanded to Colorado, with plans to be in 13 states before 2011.
The magazine won national media attention in August, when the issue included coupons for free marijuana, in amounts of one-eighth of an ounce and less, and other gifts from advertiser the Rainforest Collective.
The publication's Dailybuds.com aims to be "the Facebook for marijuana," says publishing partner Randy Malinoff, a former online guru at Universal Pictures.
Lerner, a film producer on occasion (2007's Three Days to Vegas) and publisher of a magazine for parents, sees Kush's role as important in the debate over drugs. "You have the fiduciary responsibility to make sure this industry is not taken in ill light and represented improperly, which will set the industry back," he warns. "The publication does not allow nudity, okay? The publication never mentions the word marijuana on its cover, never has a bong on its cover, never has a joint on the cover."
Thus far, only a handful of seasoned journalists have been involved in any of these magazines, and it often shows. Not everyone is impressed. Tina Dupuy, a media blogger for MediaBistro.com's Fishbowl L.A. (and an L.A. Weekly contributor), served briefly as a columnist for Kush, happily receiving a fee she said was $50 higher than the L.A. Times would pay for a similar essay.
But her pieces seemed to run without close editing. And there was never any feedback from readers. Dupuy, a former comic, was not convinced there was much to be explored beyond " 'Here's some real good weed' and 'Here's how you make a bong out of an apple.' What else is there?" she asks.
For 35 years as the nation's definitive marijuana magazine, High Times has celebrated America's reefer madness, mingling quasipornographic pictorials of marijuana plants with articles by the likes of William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Paul Krassner. Next month, the New York–based magazine launches High Times Medical Marijuana, a quarterly that will sell at newsstands for $5.99, aimed largely at California and Colorado.
"It's partly a recognition of what's happening on the West Coast and being a part of it," says Senior Editor David Bienenstock, soon to become the magazine's West Coast editor. He would not critique L.A.'s free pot magazines but did say, "If you were to do a side-by-side comparison between High Times and what you can get locally, I would welcome that."
There is also the coming launch of Marijuana Business Reporter, a trade publication for dispensaries, collectives and ancillary businesses across th e 14 states where medicinal pot is in the process of legalization. The online edition debuts in February, with a print component still to be determined.
"We're putting together a collection of veteran journalists and will cover this emerging industry in a style different from the various lifestyle publications that are out there," explains Editor in Chief Bruce Haring, a longtime business and music journalist. "The marijuana business is moving from its Wild West days toward the mainstream, and it's time for business journalism to address its needs."
It's further evidence of a larger pot universe reaching into the mainstream. As a sign of that seriousness, 420 Times Editor Brian intends to become involved in the local journalism community, and is anxious to join the L.A. Press Club. "I tell some of these dispensaries, 'You should join the chamber of commerce, to let people know what you're doing, to get involved with the community,' " Brian says. "They're always a little taken aback by that."