Big Bust at High Times

For almost forty years, High Times magazine has been the premier advocacy rag for marijuana, serving the passionate smoker much as Fox News and MSNBC serve the partisan political junkie. But in their effort to push out “the word of marijuana … the word of legalization … the word of growing,” as managing editor Natasha Lewin has put it, magazine staffers (and one can confidently say readers too) have inevitably pushed up against the law. Some are not just blowing smoke, but smuggling and dealing it too. Sometimes by the ton.

The latest alleged High Times trafficker is Matthew Woodstock Stang, known as “Magazine Guy” in the marijuana underworld. By day he’s employed as an advertising executive and senior writer for the magazine; by night, according to the Manhattan district attorney’s office, he’s a wholesaler in one of the city’s largest and longest-running marijuana rings.

This week his alleged partner, hip-hop magnate Kareem “Biggs” Burke, pleaded guilty to the reduced charge of conspiracy to distribute some 200 pounds of marijuana. Stang, meanwhile, still faces the much more serious charge of wholesaling multiton loads of pot, most of it grown indoors near Miami and trucked to a New York kingpin. If convicted, he faces 10 years to life in prison. As one federal agent said when Stang was first arrested in 2010, it’s “a case of art imitating real life.”

It’s also a case of history repeating itself. High Times was founded by a smuggler named Gary Goodson, a.k.a. Tom King Forcade, who over the years he has been described by his magazine as an “ace in the dope air force” and a “drug-culture mastermind.” He was certainly the latter. Within two years of High Times debuting in 1974—complete with centerfolds of flowering marijuana plants and prices for every kind of pot on the market—Forcade had as many as four million readers a month.

His smuggling, however, was woefully inept. In 1976 he secured a nine-ton load of marijuana that a friend had smuggled into Florida’s Everglades. But he neglected to hire help, which resulted in him taking 24 hours to load the bales into his Winnebago, which was then spotted by a wildlife officer. Police soon blocked the only road to Miami, forcing Forcade to jerk the camper into the swamp. He emerged undiscovered but mosquito-mauled three days later, determined to liquidate High Times—presumably to cover his loses.

Talked out of doing so by friends, Forcade returned to smuggling in 1978. The job called for a pilot to fly to Colombia, pick up a marijuana load, and kick it out over a remote location in southern Florida. Everything worked perfectly until Forcade, who was guiding the first plane to the drop point, radioed instructions for the pilot to “Get lower! Get lower!” The pilot got lower, hit a tree, and died. The gang lost its load.

Six months later Forcade killed himself with a pearl-handled .22 pistol. “Tom died like a soldier,” wrote Albert Goldman, a former High Times editor, in a retrospective published on the magazine’s 20th anniversary. “Such have been the deaths of men who cared less for life than they did for the Great Adventure.”

The same could be said of others who followed Forcade at the magazine. In the 1980s, Richard Stratton, an early donor to High Times and later its publisher and editor in chief, spent eight years in prison for smuggling pot and Lebanese hash into New Jersey. He used shipping containers, among other methods, but his defense made him famous. I’m not a criminal, he explained after federal agents collared him in Los Angeles, but a writer gathering material for a book about the underworld. His friend Norman Mailer came to his defense, as did Doris Kearns Goodwin.

The alibi was mostly bogus. “I wanted to be a Hemingway character,” he told this reporter a couple years ago at a Manhattan Starbucks. "I was always attracted to criminals and the criminal life. Growing up I wanted to be Al Capone not [Prohibition agent] Eliot Ness. I wanted to be Jesse James, Robin Hood. The American outlaw mythos, that's what attracted me to this life.”

In the mid-80s, domestic marijuana took off, and High Times shifted from smugglers’ guidebook to growers’ bible. But serious clashes with the law continued. Ed Rosenthal, the magazine’s former cultivation columnist—think Ann Landers for ganja—and author of Ask Ed's Marijuana Law, has himself been busted. Twice. Most recently in 2007, when a San Francisco jury convicted him of growing more than 100 marijuana plants.

The magazine itself has drawn fire. DEA agents have dubbed it “the middle man in a dope deal,” a magazine of advertisements and articles that train people for crime. And over the years, three grand juries have investigated the legality of its operations, according to Michael Kennedy, a High Times lawyer interviewed by The Washington Post in 2004.

So far High Times staffers have escaped indictment for their editorial work. But the magazine’s advertisers and vendors haven’t been so lucky. The law in many states once classified a store as an illegal drug-paraphernalia seller depending on whether it also sold High Times. And advertising in the magazine has never been without risk. “This is wonderful,” editor Andy Kowl joked with his staff after the DEA raided dozens of advertisers in the late 1980s. “Buy an ad! Get a subpoena!”

Matthew Woodstock Stang, of course, could get much worse. He’s currently free on a $500,000 bond while his lawyers negotiate with the Manhattan district attorney's office—the latest, but presumably not the last High Times staffer to duke it out with authorities. As managing editor Natasha Lewin put it in 2010, "The message that the magazine is trying to get out to the world is that it's okay to smoke cannabis. It's okay to grow cannabis. It's okay because it shouldn't be illegal in the first place."