High Times magazine sells to Bob Marley’s son, others

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A report by Ed Murrieta for the San Francisco Chronicle.

The youngest son of reggae star Bob Marley as well as wealthy legal pot sellers from Colorado have taken control of High Times magazine, the storied counterculture media brand known around the world.

A consortium of entertainment and cannabis veterans, including musician Damian Marley and pioneers from Colorado pot shop chain Denver Relief, acquired a controlling interest in High Times, at a valuation of $70 million, High Times’ new chief executive told The Chronicle Wednesday.

The deal includes websites, book publishing and the influential Cannabis Cup trade shows and competitions. The magazine is holding its Northern California event in Santa Rosa this weekend, including seminars and a cannabis cook-off.

“High Times is the Coca-Cola of cannabis,” said CEO Adam Levin, founder of Los Angeles investment firm Oreva Capital, who led the acquisition. “We see the opportunity as a diversified media company, to bring High Times from the authority in the counterculture movement to a modern media enterprise.”

Marley said his cannabis career is rooted in High Times.

“When I was in high school I used to grow some herb,” Marley said in a news release. “I learned to differentiate male from the female plant by reading High Times magazine. It is now an honor to be a part of the High Times legacy that I’ve been a fan of for so many years.”

High Times said it has approximately 236,000 monthly print subscribers. Its digital properties garner more than 20 million unique visitors monthly, Levin said.

Privately held by the same owners or their heirs since it was founded by an outlaw cannabis smuggler in 1974, High Times and its New York parent company, Trans-High Corp., cater to an audience hungry for the magazine’s mix of primo pot, exotic adventures, radical politics and wild sex.

“High Times is like the North Star that all the other magazines followed,” said media analyst Samir Husni, founder of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi. “When High Times first published, it was the only one of its kind. It survived FBI raids on its advertisers. It was the trailblazer.”

“It’s a sign of the times,” said Tommy Chong, the comedian who has appeared on High Times’ cover a record eight times. “Weed’s legal and there’s a million High Times out there.”

Chong compared High Times’ history to his career with partner Cheech Marin.

“We all went through some hard times. We all went through some really good times. And now we’re faced with the prospect of weed being mainstream,” Chong said. “I don’t know where else you can go with marijuana. You can show pictures of weed and pretty girls. But now we’re into the medical aspect of it. It’s a different kind of magazine that will be writing about it. Cheech and I had to adjust and I think that’s what will be happening with High Times and anyone that’s been on the outlaw side of marijuana.”

Other investors include Isaac Dietrich, founder of cannabis social media site MassRoots, and Nick Kovacevich, CEO of Kush Bottles, a cannabis packaging company.

While cannabis is medicinally legal in more than half of the states in America and recreationally legal in eight states, High Times launched when marijuana was viewed akin to heroin. As recently as a decade ago, High Times was displayed in opaque plastic bags by Barnes & Noble, a cover-up retailers generally reserve for pornography. Now it’s sold openly in airports.

“I see dozens of deals come across my desk every day,” said Ean Seeb, founding partner of Denver Relief who, along with some co-workers, is a member of the new owner group. “High Times is an instantly recognizable international cannabis brand. Pairing the name with the strategy to expand both the world famous Cannabis Cup and the magazine was an easy decision.”

Magazine expert Husni agreed.

“The print magazine will be the cornerstone, but they are going to build a brand-new skyscraper,” Husni said. “They will benefit more from the events.”

High Times has recently tried to temper its outlaw image to become a lifestyle brand, but has suffered board and management upheaval, including the abrupt 2015 firing of David Kohl, a veteran media executive who filed a $6 million breach-of-employment lawsuit that’s still pending.

“They brought in new management and new management messed up things and the magazine lost its way a little bit,” Husni said.

High Times will now operate as High Times Holding Co., primarily out of its Los Angeles office. High Times’ management and editorial staff remains mostly intact, Levin said. The previous owners remain shareholders. The magazine will print its 500th issue in July.

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