It’s all because of John Holmstrom. I’d met the former publisher of PUNK magazine in 1982 when I was editing Video Games magazine. John was a gamer. His cartoon-sketched game reviews were appearing in Heavy Metal at the time. I tracked John down and assigned him some reviews for Video Games.
We became fast friends, bonding at an arcade game convention in Chicago, which he reviewed in a hilarious four-page strip in Video Games. In addition to PUNK, John was famous for his cartoon characters and comic books like Hep Cat and Stop!
In 1986, several years after I left Video Games, John was hired as managing editor of High Times. He’d had a connection with founder and publisher Tom Forçade, who committed suicide in 1978.
Enter High Times
Despite the fact that I started to smoke marijuana when I was a junior at De Witt Clinton High School in the Bronx, I wasn’t a regular reader of High Times. One issue from the early ’80s stood out in my mind: Paul Krassner’s cover story about dropping acid with Groucho Marx.
Returning the favor, John offered me freelance writing and proofreading assignments. In 1988, he called one day and said they were looking for a part-time news editor and wondered if I was interested.
At the time, I was freelance writing articles about popular music for newspapers (Newsday, Daily News, Soho Weekly News) and magazines (Rolling Stone, Musician, Down Beat). When John called, I was also finishing up a basketball book (Watch Out for the Little Guys).
I started in October. High Times was not yet computerized. Articles were tapped out on typewriters and sent to a typesetter. I was given a desk in managing editor Judy McGuire’s office. Since it was a part-time job, I initially did my work over a two-week period for each issue.
My job was to fill up the eight-page “HighWitness News” section with interesting articles. I wasn’t familiar with federal or state pot laws and didn’t know anyone in the legalization movement. What struck me most was the amount of cannabis arrests happening around the country. I learned about this by reading the countless letters containing news clips sent in by readers. I had a lot of catching up to do.
My first issue was January 1989. I was quickly dispatched to NORML Conferences in Washington, DC and Hash Bash in Ann Arbor where I met hardcore activists like Jack Herer, Keith Stroup, Elvy Musikka and Ben Masel. After several years of news editing, my responsibilities increased and I was hired full-time in 1991.
From News to Music
Knowing that I had a background in music journalism, editor-in-chief Steven Hager reassigned me to the entertainment beat. I moved from the front of the magazine to the back of the book, where my new “Buzz” section featured interviews and reviews of stoner bands. After I wrote cover stories about Cypress Hill (March 1992) and Black Crowes (July 1992), High Times became a go-to for any band that liked to get high. I interviewed, assigned articles and organized photo shoots with dozens of bands and artists over the next 15 years. Among the highlights were Snoop Dogg; Willie Nelson; Ozzy Osbourne; Wu Tang Clan; Fishbone; Redman; and Ziggy, Stephen and Damian Marley.
RELATED: Celebrities on the Cover of High Times
I wore a number of hats at High Times. In addition to my editorial responsibilities, I co-produced two benefit albums (Hempilation: Freedom Is NORML in 1995 and Hempilation 2: Free the Weed in 1998) as well as two High Times award shows: The Stonys (for movies and TV) and The Doobies (for music). I also played with and managed the famous High Times Bonghitters softball team.
Revolving Door at the Top
By 2003, the walls at High Times started tumbling down. The shareholders who ran Trans High Corporation (High Times’ parent company at the time) fired Hager and decided the magazine should go in a new, less cannabis-focused direction. This awful decision created a revolving door of editors, which included me.
First, I was assigned to edit High Times Grow America, an offshoot of High Times that retained the pretty pictures and cultivation articles, which had been jettisoned from the main publication. After the new, non-pot crew were dismissed, I was promoted to co-editor with David Bienenstock and Rick Cusick. We were charged with a quick revival of High Times, which had sunk to a new low in sales and reputation. We did our best over the next two years, but that wasn’t good enough for the majority shareholders. (I was a minority shareholder along with Hager, Holmstrom and a few other longstanding employees.)
In 2006, Bienenstock, Cusick and I were demoted and Hager returned as editor. In 2007, I was fired for writing a book called Pot Culture (with another former High Times employee Shirley Halperin). For some reason, High Times did not want me to write that book. Disgusted, I sold my shares back to the company and moved on.
Going Online with CelebStoner
Rather than go back into full-time music journalism, I decided to use everything I learned over the previous years and forge ahead by myself covering cannabis. In 2007, blogging was the new thing. I started my first blog at blogspot.com. I learned how to post articles and photos and write some html code. From there, I bought the domain for celebstoner.com and started blogging about celebs who advocate for legalization, music, movies, sports and general marijuana news. At the time, except for hightimes.com and cannabisculture.com in Canada, there wasn’t much competition online.
Freedom Leaf and Beyond
In 2014, Freedom Leaf came knocking. My New Jersey activist friend Chris Goldstein asked me to write articles for the first two issues. For the third issue, he suggested that I take over as editor. For the next four years I ran the magazine, producing 33 issues. (I worked on more than 200 issues at High Times.) I also edited the website in 2018 and 2019.
Founded by former NORML executive director Richard Cowan and Cliff Perry, Freedom Leaf sought to merge business with activism. Eventually, the company expanded with several hemp and CBD lines. In 2019, Freedom Leaf merged with Green Lotus Hemp (now GL Brands) and I was laid off.
But good fortune has generally followed me and I quickly found work editing special issues for Centennial Media. And I continue to post articles at CelebStoner, which is experiencing a growth spurt.
It saddens me to see what's happened to High Times. The legendary magazine and company seems to have lost its way during the Green Rush, as reported at length by Ben Schreckinger at Politico. In July, we noted the suspension of the High Times print edition.
I never thought I’d spend a large chunk of my professional career in cannabis. Those first joints in 1970 really paid off.