Our Buds, Ourselves

Marijuana and Pets Are the Past and Future of Niche Marketing

Wendy Diamond is playing it safe, judging by her slick new magazine, 'Animal Fair,' which is about celebrity pets and debuts November 2. From the petting sessions with Brad Pitt to the latest in Chanel dog collars, it's clear that the founder of 'Animal Fair' is pitching to an upscale audience. So I doubt she'd have given the time of day to Tom Forçade, the long-haired visionary who founded High Times in 1974 and will be feted at a 25th-anniversary party this week. But as a niche marketer, Diamond might learn as much about lifestyle chronicling from High Times as she has from In Style and People, on which her mag is intentionally modeled.

Forçade was about 29 when he launched High Times; Diamond is now 28. While Diamond's press kit depicts her as a successful fundraiser, known for her "hard work, entrepreneurial savvy and close relationships with Hollywood executives and celebrities alike," that description could also fit Forçade, a charming lad who by the mid 1970s had testified in Congress, given away lots of money, and forged some high-level connections as a pot smuggler.

Those were the days, according to High Times editor in chief Steve Hager, when "the drug dealers were the tribal leaders." But Forçade wasn't just some charismatic stud. After receiving a degree in business administration from the University of Utah in 1966, he founded the literary magazine Orpheus. By 1968, he had moved to New York and taken charge of the Underground Press Syndicate, an association that grew to represent more than 200 newspapers nationwide.

Just as Diamond has assembled hipsters like Ron Rosenbaum and Nancy Jo Sales to contribute to Animal Fair, Forçade "had an eye for writers," according to one veteran of the scene. "At the time, there was a lot of sharp, interesting, funny stuff being written. Papers from all over the country would send their issues to his office, and he would send out a packet of reproduced clips every month." It was like the "Associated Press of the underground," this source says, addressing such raging controversies as "Was Timothy Leary a snitch, and what do we think about that?"

Animal Fair has its controversies, too-like whether cats are superior to dogs, and whether Hollywood directors should create roles for their starlets' favorite pets. But that's a story for another day. It was 1974 when Forçade decided to do something positive with all that easy money he was making: Launch a magazine that would be to marijuana what Playboy was to sex. He printed 10,000 copies of the first issue of High Times, which sold out instantly.

According to Hager, Forçade hired "the cream of the underground press" and managed the magazine as a "very profitable" and legitimate business with a comptroller and a bank account. Companies that made bongs and rolling papers scooped up ad pages, and by 1978, circulation reached almost 500,000. But Forçade felt conflicted by his mainstream success, according to a cartoon history in a special issue called The Best of High Times, hiring "flocks of stoned-out hippies" only to "fire them en masse at humiliating public ceremonies." Even as he was discovering the Sex Pistols, he had difficulty forgetting cocaine, Quaaludes, and snitches. (It was rumored that he himself was a government agent.) In November 1978, Forçade shot himself in the head.

And thus began the dark days, marked by the bans on paraphernalia and the overnight popularity of cocaine (High Times attributes the latter to a CIA-DEA plot, as spelled out in a feature called "Top 10 Conspiracies" in the current issue). Ad sales plummeted, and for the next 10 years, High Times strayed from its original mission, spilling more ink on blow than buds. (The Animal Fair equivalent might be a cover shot of a beleaguered iguana, rather than a pampered golden retriever.) By 1985, circulation had hit an all-time low. What the mag needed was Steve Hager, a former Daily News reporter and author of books on hip-hop and the East Village art scene who became executive editor in 1986 and editor in chief in 1988.

Hager had a vision that put High Times back on course: First, he focused the mag entirely on marijuana and the championing and cultivation thereof. Second, he vowed to preserve the legacy of the hippie counterculture, which he calls "the most persecuted culture in America." You might not agree with Hager that marijuana is a sacrament, but a sizable demographic in this country does. And the government policy of marijuana prohibition (in 1998, more Americans were arrested on pot-related charges than for murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault combined) has only stoked the demand for a magazine that caters to the constituency of peace-loving outlaws.

Granted, pet lovers are a larger, nicer niche than pot smokers, and more of them are women. The High Times demographic is 80 percent male. But they keep coming back, according to publisher Mike Edison, who claims the mag is "absolutely" profitable and that ad revenues are up 19 percent this year. High Times has a paid readership of 250,000 and about a million total ("Our readers like to pass things around," says Edison). Much of the demographic is 24-to 35-year-olds, mixed in with the stoners, the activists, the boomers, and what Hager calls "the nose-pierced, tongue-pierced outsider who will go anywhere to hear an honest voice." Then there are the indoor cultivators, "who want to make $10,000 to $20,000 a year tax-free" growing marijuana "in a closet." Says Hager of his magazine's raison d'être, "It's worth twice its weight in gold."

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