Media: Still hazy after all these years

High Times magazine is 25 years old this month and still selling 250,000 copies. Not bad for a bunch of dope-smoking hippies.
It may seem a little unfair to base one's initial impressions of a magazine on its adverts - but in the case of High Times, the world's leading journal for cannabis smokers, it's almost impossible not to. In fact, its key source of ad revenue provides a neat illustration of the social fault-line on which High Times thrives.

With mandatory drug-testing increasingly becoming the American norm, its pages are dominated by notices for beat-the-tester inventions. Some push products that look like health tonics ("Just shake and drink!" says the blurb for Test Pure, "works in one hour!"). Others offer home-use contraptions that look like chemistry sets. The most eye-opening, however, extols the worth of the Whizzinator - "An easy to use urinating device with a very realistic prosthetic penis." As if to prove that dope-smoking is one of the few American habits that transcends race divides, the device is available in white, tan, brown and black.

High Times celebrates its 25th anniversary this month. It was founded in 1974 by Tom Focade, a high-ranking US hippy (indeed, the magazine's origins are betrayed by its strap-line: "Celebrating the counterculture"). Ever since, High Times has combined the celebration of marijuana with a crusading zeal that belies the idea that "stoner" culture is a morass of apathy and indifference. Some might think that it's a miracle it appears at all; that it manages to do so 12 times a year and sound a positively righteous voice is admirable indeed.

Steve Bloom is one of High Times' three senior editors: 45 years old, endowed with a surprisingly straight-laced vocabulary, and particularly fond of "fruit-flavoured skunk weeds".

"We're a journal of advocacy," he says. "Other magazines surf the latest trends, or hang everything they do around celebrities - but we have a serious point to make. We think all drugs should be made legal, and we want to light a fire under the way people think and push the agenda forward. That's what High Times is based on." Consequently, its news section contains a monthly bulletin called The War Abroad, stuffed with tales of unfair imprisonment and police heavy-handedness. And High Times' leader comment pulsates with moralism - in the 25th anniversary edition, it goes for the ethical jugular with the tale of a wheelchair-bound Florida man facing up to 10 years in the "can" for the manufacture and possession of marijuana.

Inevitably, though, the magazine tends to tumble into the strange kind of anal-retentiveness that is dope culture's hallmark. Many of its pages look like they've been ripped from a gardening magazine: page upon page is given over to pictures of the "herb" in its cultivation stage, and captioned in a style akin to Homes and Gardens: "These plants had a nasty snail infestation," reads one caption in the 25th birthday special. Indeed, the whole magazine seems to operate on the understanding that the weed is the star - High Times' 2000 calendar features 12 portraits of unbelievably lush dope plants. "Initially," says Bloom, "the magazine kind of took its lead from Playboy, and I think that's still the case today. It's very image-driven, and there are pictorials and centrefolds, but it's about the plant. We get the pot when it's in pristine condition, right as it's being harvested, and the photos we get are very dramatic."

However, the notion of the plant being the star hardly accounts for High Times' circulation figures (at the last count, it averaged around 250,000 per issue).

For all his distaste for celebrity-dominated publishing, Bloom admits that a lot of his time is spent star-chasing, and the results are one of High Times' key selling-points: celebrities posing with the sacraments of dope-smoking, and happily talking about their habits. "Musicians are always the happiest to do it, bless their little stoner hearts," Bloom explains. "They're rock stars, so being in High Times comes with the territory. They don't care that their mom might see it and throw a fit. But we still have to negotiate. A good example is the cover we did with Ozzy Osbourne. His people contacted me, and I said, `Will Ozzy do a High Times-type cover?' Because it means posing with buds, or smoking a joint. They got back to me and said, `Ozzy will do the cover with buds - but he won't smoke it.' We worked it out. We've been trying to get Paul McCartney in the magazine for years. We know he's a supporter, we love Paul - but no matter how much pot he's smoked during his life, it's still a big leap for him. Someone like Paul would bring so much credibility to this issue, and what we do in High Times. With the new album that's just come out, and after Paul's mourning for Linda, we've gone back, and started to negotiate again. I'm optimistic about it happening sooner or later."

Leafing through the magazine, and wowing over its occasional star-based articles - a recent picture spread featured British singer Jay Kay lounging in a bed of buds - it's clear that a great deal of its appeal comes from the illegality of its subject matter. Indeed, there's little doubt that its readership sets a lot of store by the fact that it's a classic "badge" title - by simply purchasing it, you ally yourself with the low-rent non- conformity that dope smoking still represents.

All of which begs one crucial question: if cannabis were decriminalised, would the High Times party be over? "Not at all," Bloom retorts. "I actually think we'd double or triple our size. All the companies that were very afraid to advertise would jump on our bandwagon; we'd start getting the beer and clothes and car ads we don't have right now.

"There's a really successful magazine in the US called Cigar Aficionado. I look at it and think, `Look how thick this magazine is, look at all the ads, look at all the celebrities on the cover - and it's just about cigars.' Take it from me, cigars are nowhere near as good for you as pot. So if pot was legal, why wouldn't celebrities be on the cover of our magazine smoking a big fattie?"