The first issue of High Times magazine came out in the summer of '74. Its simple beige and teal cover paraded marijuana as a "wonder drug," listing that among other stories about acid pioneer Timothy Leary, hemp paper and lady drug dealers. High Times soon became not only the Bible of the counterculture but an entity unto itself, with events and other media making waves far beyond just the physical magazine.
In the 44 years since its genesis, High Times has become not only a cultural icon but an authority on pot culture itself. Still, one question lingers: Now that marijuana is becoming legal in more and more places, and hence increasingly mainstream, do pot culture and counterculture still go hand in hand?
On March 1, High Times held an awards gala in downtown L.A. to honor the 100 most influential people in the cannabis industry over the past year. Categories included activists, cultivators, dispensary owners, scientists, media moguls and so forth. The cocktail-attire evening, with vape pen favors neatly on display and waitstaff zigzagging through the crowd to serve wine, wasn't necessarily what you'd expect from a so-called stoner event — but who's calling it a stoner event anyway?
Whether "stoner" has an inherent fringe quality to its definition anymore, or whether it merely describes someone who loves weed, as it appeared Thursday, pot people are just like everyone else — they just happen to love pot.
Cannabis culture isn't countercultural anymore — the social justice, political, scientific and economic value of the industry is too big for that now. Instead, it's a growing brand of popular culture unto itself. "It's time to properly celebrate the cannabis industry, for High Times to take its place as one of the cultural leaders in cannabis, and also from a heritage perspective, as the original brand from over 40 years ago," says Brian Rucker, head of events and partnerships at High Times. "We're focusing on being that bellwether media brand bringing the industry together via entertainment and business.”
High Times is mainstreaming cannabis, he adds, bringing it to the general population, "not just to people reading High Times as a teenager and hiding it under the mattress." Honoring such industry leaders as Doug Benson, Reggie Watts, B Real (Cypress Hill), Berner, Damian Marley, Snoop Dogg, Whoopi Goldberg & Maya Elisabeth (founders of pot-for-PMS line Whoopi & Maya), Cheech & Chong and Jordan Lams (founder of women-centric cannabis brand Moxie), the gala validated High Times as a cultural purveyor and authoritative source in the cannabis space.
By the same token, High Times validated cannabis as a dynamic force in society — a medicine, policy issue, lifestyle product and, as honoree Evan Nison, founder of PR company NisonCo, points out, "an industry born from a social movement."
That movement began with a focus on the medicinal aspects of cannabis, paraded by gay rights activists such as Dennis Peron, who used cannabis to treat his partner, who was dying of AIDS. Peron was instrumental in authoring Proposition 215 to legalize medical marijuana in 1996. The facility with which one could get a medical recommendation in California bred a culture, fueled by legal-ish weed, never mind that more conservative states have since looked down on that program as a hall pass for stoners.
Fast-forward more than two decades and cannabis is regarded as more than a medicine, more than just a stoner "drug," but a wellness and lifestyle product, as seen with brands like Whoopi & Maya. "Our intention is to help people find healthy ways to enjoy cannabis so it can be incorporated into everyday life," says Maya Elisabeth. Face wash, tampons, cannabis cream — it's a quotidian lifestyle product.
With cannabis touching various sectors of society, from parents to professionals, rappers to recreators, High Times is a trusted brand for everyone, more than a countercultural brand, Rucker says: "It's all-inclusive." In a sense, High Times — and cannabis culture at large — has graduated from the fringe. "We can use our heritage to appeal to stoners and we can ride the wave of legalization to appeal to a more mainstream audience. We're seeing a lot of mainstreaming, a lot of investors that are interested in the cannabis space," he adds.
The High Times 100 serves almost as a "Forbes 100" list for the cannabis industry, Rucker says. Honoring the 100 most influential people in the cannabis space also means honoring pioneers and risk takers, says Cameron Forni, founder of Select Oil and president of Cura, one of the event sponsors. "They've risked their lives, freedom and businesses," he says. "They've blazed the trail for the future of the industry."
The cannabis space is at a point now where industry and activism collide: The legal industry wouldn't be where it is without the activists who risked their reputations or their freedom on the black market to legalize cannabis and build a market amid a legal gray zone. Meanwhile, in recent years, the industry and money poured into cannabis has helped make it more palatable to say, conservatives, non-cannabis folk, medical patients or others reticent to try it, or to Republicans in Congress. "You either have to innovate or you die — that's just the business," Forni says. “As this legal climate changes, it requires you to follow rules and laws if we want to normalize cannabis."
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Today, legalization in California means a highly regulated system; cannabis is still not as "legal" per se as alcohol, for which there are far fewer hoops to jump through. Select Oil, for instance, is the best-selling cannabis brand on the West Coast, operating out of three states. Every city has different laws, every state has different laws, and you need specialists on the ground in each state to ensure you're doing everything legally, Forni says.
Some may argue that the highly regulated, if not overly regulated, approach to cannabis "legalization" is an extension of Prohibition; others, like Forni, argue that the rules and regulations help make cannabis and cannabis legalization more palatable to the mainstream.
Despite widespread disagreement within the cannabis space about the best way to go about legalization and regulation, what was clear at the High Times gala was the plurality of folks in the industry who shape the industry and the laws, as well as the reach of the cannabis plant itself into all facets of society — at no other event would Snoop Dogg and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, a champion for marijuana law reform, be granted the same honor.