Cannabis Castaways

When CBS announced a former British commando had moved to Hollywood and was launching a survival elimination game show called “Survivor,” I instantly knew the concept was going to be a big hit, mostly because it was mining tribal traditions, something I’d been doing for over a decade through my events and organizations.

Of course, I didn’t want some cutthroat competition, just a group of cinematic stoners checking out all the strains of the annual Cannabis Cup. Maybe that sounds easy, but it’s actually quite a daunting task unless you’re an experienced bud-tender or distributor who knows his strains.

We had a talented young comedian, a hip hop music producer (and grower), an aspiring performance artist, a medical user, a noted activist, and a super hottie from England. They were all thrown into a one bedroom houseboat in Amsterdam and told they had to stay onboard until they had tried all the strains, which were released slowly in increments of a half dozen or so at a time.

After 36 hours or so, the young comedian requested to get off the boat and soon announced he was off pot for good. He had entered the contest not really being very experienced with cannabis, but only wanting to win the contest and get some notoriety for his comedy. As a joke, he rolled a dozen strains into a giant joint and began toking on it. Within a few minutes, you could see a pronounced change in his body language.

The Castaways picked the Cannabis Cup winner that year, and I was planning on another season, and keeping some of the Castaways as characters in my tv universe I was building, but when they returned to the States, the hip hop producer’s estranged wife initiated a custody battle to bar access to their daughter based on his participation in the show. When he called me hysterically after the judgment, I asked for a copy of the transcript.

I’d just won a similar custody battle based on my being editor of High Times initiated by a bipolar member of my wife’s family, so I had experience with the terror this dude was going through, and you don’t know real mental terror until someone swoops in and seizes your only child.

But, at the same time, I had to admit the transcript read like a Cheech and Chong script. The producer had denied being involved in the show from the get-go and the lawyer led him down a garden path until he produced a copy of High Times with him on the cover, holding his distinctive cane, a cane he now held firmly in his grasp in the witness stand. The producer went down in flames.

I contacted the comedian because I wondered if he wanted to work on an animated film about our project. A lot of the comedy we’d worked on together during the event had been successful. We’d produced a sitcom every night for four nights running and showed the results to open the shows at the Melkweg. This mini series was treated with waves of applause and belly laughter and was obviously the most entertaining thing we’d produced content-wise from all my improvisational explorations.

But the comedian freaked again, and sent a letter to all the Castaways saying I was planing on mining their personal tragedies for profit and advised them all never to speak with me again. He certainly never did.

But we did get a live web show so popular it kept crashing our website while it was on, and the highlights were immortalized in a DVD you can watch here:

Chef Ra Escapes Babylon

Tom Forcade had multiple film projects in the works when he committed suicide. He’d recently bought controlling interest of a smuggling project, and went to show a rough cut to Robert Evans in Hollywood. Forcade had just paid an editor to whip the chaotic footage into a story. He put a lot of effort into trying to make sense of that footage, some of which involved footage of a real smuggling operation, but Evans sadly told him the edit still wasn’t working.

Apparently, Forcade’s moves into Hollywood contributed to two things: cocaine and guns. According to Gabrielle Schang, Forcade didn’t carry a pistol until after being introduced around Hollywood. He’d been a dealer and distributor and magazine publisher, but was also branching into smuggling and film at the same time. His most precious documentary project involved filming the Sex Pistols historic tour of America. Forcade bought a plane and sent Jack Combs on a mission. He never recovered from Jack’s fatal crash at the end of that ill-fated mission. And that also ended any High Times forays into the film world until I arrived.

Before coming to High Times, I’d launched a moderately successful film project called Beat Street, and never lost sight of expanding my efforts into the world of film and video. When prosumer equipment finally reached the realms of the masses, I began documenting everything, quickly evolving into the most video-centric magazine editor on the national stage. I shot thousands of hours of footage, and often assembled 7-person crews to do four-camera edits with live switching of my major events. All this was working towards the creation of a counterculture television network.

The first project I pitched to the trustees was a Chef Ra travel guide to Jamaica. I was creating an entire galaxy of High Times stars and Ra was intended to be one of the brightest.

Imagine my surprise when the trustees tell me they are putting up thousands of dollars to make the Chef Ra film. That was the good news. The bad news was the project was being given to the aspiring filmmaker son of the head trustee. I didn’t get to play any role in the film until the end. They spent a week in Jamaica and shot a lot of random footage and needed Ra to help work it into a story.

That’s not the best way to make a great documentary and it showed in the final product. But it remains the best portrait of Jim Wilson we have, and since Jim co-wrote the script used to stitch the scenes together, it carries his creativity and compassion.

The first documentary on the emerging hemp movement

Modern life is evolving so fast it’s hard to imagine the vibes going down 30 years ago. Which is why it’s so entertaining to check out a documentary I produced early in the 1990s titled Let Freedom Ring: the Origins of the Hemp Movement. It came out just after my discovery of 420, but three years after I’d created the Freedom Fighters with the help of Rodger Belknap of West Virginia, who quickly became our organization’s chief funder and spiritual advisor.

The Freedom Fighters went from a handful of High Times staffers to the biggest cannabis legalization group in the world in two years, while the Ann Arbor Hash Bash went from a dozen hardcore devotees to many thousands cramming the diag at the University of Michigan. Marching into rallies in our Freedom Fighter outfits was the ritual that helped galvanize a national movement.

Shortly after the film was released, however, Rodger was railroaded into jail, while High Times forced me to disband the group, allegedly because NORML was unhappy about the competition, which seemed weird since our newsletter had been recognizing and supporting NORML chapters from inception, and many Freedom Fighter state groups were also affiliated with NORML, including the chapter in Boston that created the Boston Freedom Rally.

Our big campaign was bringing activists together for major rallies. We organized free campgrounds with free food and a free bus ride to the rally. When Rodger asked me what was needed for the organization, I told him we needed a school bus and council tipi. Within a few weeks we had both and took off for the Rainbow Gathering in Ocala, Florida, where I flew a High Times flag and nobody cared.

High Times and me

I was fired by High Times for requesting a small raise to cover the cost of my kid’s braces ($250 per month). At the time my take-home pay did not even cover the rent on my apartment, and I had a disabled family member I was taking care of that required an additional location, and was a single dad with two kids. They dismissed any possible raise, even though the cannabis cup I created was making millions, and the magazine circulation had shrank to unprofitablity without my leadership. This angered me so much that I requested a buy out on the ten percent of the company I owned. They said, see what you can get. I got four offers at $250k per share, half my shares. High Times fired me, threatened me with litigation, seized all my archives, and forced me to give up the shares for less than a quarter on the dollar. And then they didn’t even honor the bullshit deal.
Why was I so angry at High Times? Mostly because I’d recently got back from lunch with the head of Lion’s Gate and his top execs and they had greenlighted a $2-million movie called High Times Cannabis Cup, and after that lunch, Lion’s Gate hired a screenwriter, who met with me and the producers, and wrote a brilliant script that was a comedy, yet it included all my concepts on ritual theater, and non-violence, and cannabis ceremonies, and really gave props to the Temple Dragon Crew, and the Temple Dragon Band, and used the candles in the film. This was going to be my vindication after being chained in a cellar for seven years by High Times, only High Times squashed the film by saying they had to take out the Temple Dragons and all their magic.
They couldn’t even respect my humble little attempt to tell the world that the true story of the holy grail involves cannabis.

And you had a chance to be one of the owners of High Times?

Did you know there are only four shareholders left at High Times? The founder’s great dream of a nation of workers didn’t really manifest exactly on course, but the few shareholders there are get together every year and plot the course for the year and discuss every aspect of all things marijuana. And, of course, we get to see all the financial information and hear the inside stories on whatever sagas are rumbling through the undercurrent of that scene. Lots of juicy gossip that you can never reveal.
I am selling 8 shares this year and since there are 67 shares  in circulation they represent around 12 percent of the company. Trust me, once pot becomes legal, the value of these shares will explode. Someday, this company will go public, and when it does, anyone holding a share will become rich in the process.


Gunshots at Marijuana Rally

How sad the Denver rally was marred by violence and instead of a message of peace, the global news is now reporting: “gunshots at marijuana rally.” For me, this is a great tragedy.

Abby from Daily Beast called me on 4/19 and interviewed me for over an hour. She seemed fascinated by my history of spiritual use of cannabis, although I cautioned her there was a pretty intense filter in the national media on any of this info, and if she planned to write about it, be prepared for censorship from on high. She laughed off that idea, but strangely, her story has yet to appear.

The Denver rally began ten years ago, one of the first large mass April 20th events. Now we have so many. In 1990 I discovered an annual ritual was taking place near the top of Mount Tamalpais in Marin County. At the time, I was reading about Soma and had decided the story invented by Gordon Wasson that Soma was a mushroom was false, and Soma was actually cannabis, just like it was obvious to me cannabis was manifesting real ceremony and ritual in Marin, headquarters of the hippie counterculture after the Haight was over-run with undercovers, violence, hard drugs and nasty ops. From 1995 until 2003, the center of energy on spreading 420 ceremonies was the Cannabis Cup, especially the Temple Dragon Crew, who were so fanatical about honoring 420 they did it twice every day, at 4:20 PM and 4:20 AM. Having a picture taken at the Quentin hotel lobby under the clock at 4:20 AM was one of the biggest 420 ceremonies around for years before the rest of the world picked up on it.

That’s why I could never understand why Steve Bloom, who actually appears in some of those early 420 photos at the Quentin lobby, tells people High Times, the Cannabis Cup, and me in particular, “had nothing to do with spreading 420?” After having spent 30 years trying to get the spiritual rights issues around cannabis recognized, and then have that entire life’s campaign dismissed by someone who actually saw the thing assembled is saddening. But then Bloom voluntarily quit High Times when I was brought back the third time, just because he couldn’t work under me again. So I understand where the vibes are coming from.

Mike Edison on wikipedia claims I pushed the Waldo’s story and took 420 to “cult-like extremes.” That is really hilarious. Yes, I organized events around 420, and at 4:20 PM, I would sometimes ask the assembled multitudes to form a circle, hold hands, and OM for world peace. That’s a traditional hippie ceremony begun in North America by The Brotherhood of Eternal Love on the West Coast and Allen Ginsberg on the East Coast. I believed holding these ceremonies was proof of spiritual culture and could be used to bring a court case to the Supreme Court, which had always refused to hear the religious rights case on cannabis.

Like I was telling Abby from Daily Beast, I found out about marijuana by reading On the Road, and the key moment in that stream of consciousness is a spiritual moment in Mexico provided by a few hits of marijuana. That book sent my generation looking for marijuana because we wanted to have a spiritual moment like that, especially since all of us had recently lost our religions and needed something real and honest we could plug into.

During this crucial time, when the counterculture was re-discovering the sacrament of peace culture, what happens? A major op is launched by Gordon Wasson to declare the magic mushroom as the key to spirituality. And he heads off down to Mexico to take mushrooms with a shaman and it ends up on the cover of Life magazine. Suddenly, it’s all about mushrooms again. This is obviously the same op Wasson pulled on Soma. Could it be possible that when the Roman empire took control of Christianity, which up until then had been a poor people’s religion based on world peace, and when Constantine put that cross on his army’s shields, he also switched up the sacraments? The poor people got alcohol, while the priests got mushrooms maybe but the cannabis became strictly forbidden because cannabis manifests peace culture, and the Roman empire was never about peace.

After I attended my first Rainbow Gathering and stood in a circle OMing for peace with 15,000 people, my mind was blown and I realized if only we had more ceremonies like this, we might actually get some positive energy going in this direction. So I organized a lot of peace circles for the next 30 years and tried to teach the youth about hippie magic. But I live in New York City, where hippies are not really very popular, and the minute I started manifesting these ceremonies, I was branded “a cult leader” by people that wanted to take my job. Where is my army of zombie robots and why aren’t they carrying me around in a sedan chair feeding me grapes all day? In fact, I never tried to organize a cult or anything close and I have zero dogma to push, only a desire to spread peace energy to help heal all the hate, but of course, this is dangerous, or at least lame and stupid, eh?

The Xerox Art Movement of 1980-81

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Between 1980 and 1981, a lot of emerging artists knew the Zeitgeist was changing and were experimenting with new media hoping to catch whatever wave might come along. For a year or two, Xerox art became the rage for many. In fact, Jean Michel Basquiat was doing it before he started painting on canvas, and the form may have even helped him segue from writing cryptic poems in the street to inventing his own image vocabulary based on opening up his inner child. Tom Forcade, the founder of High Times, by the way, was an influence on Jean’s teen years because Forcade was the most legendary character living downtown in the 1970s. Jean dumped a box of shaving cream on his high school principal, something that might have been inspired by Tom throwing a pie inside Congress during an investigation on pornography a few years earlier. One of Jean’s biggest boosters at the time (Glenn O’Brien) was momentarily Editor of High Times, and wrote the first major article on the new writers like Jean and Fab Five, although no one thinks of Jean as a writer today as he quickly backed away from that scene.

HaringXeroxPope

Of all these Xerox artists, Keith Haring was one of the most political, using Burrough’s cut-up technique to rearrange headlines from the rabidly right-wing New York Post to convey shocking messages (left). Haring was also very prolific. Anytime he did something, Keith usually went all-in, and his short-lived Xerox phase was no exception. Kenny Scharf might have been living with Keith at the time, although maybe they were just in school together but he also joined in with his own Xerox art (below).

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Vapo Jet is the title of this piece, and it has to be one of the most phallic of all Kenny’s early work. The Fifties mom wearing Jetson-style sunglasses quickly became a recurring archetype in Kenny’s personal iconography. I wonder sometimes if my Xerox art collection is worth anything? None of the pieces are signed and it’s pretty easy to make forgeries, although I’ve never tried.

HaringXeroxPope-2

Keith eventually switched from cutting up Post headlines to inventing his own personal iconography, and that switch took place during the short-lived Xerox art movement. By New Year’s Eve 1980, Keith’s new vocabulary was fully formed (left). Meanwhile, Kenny went to soak up the vibes at Stonehenge that spring and made a color Xerox that shows him with Samantha and Bruno.

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Origins of the Hemp Movement

When I came to High Times, most of the pro-marijuana rallies originally organized in the seventies had died out. There was one flame left, however, in Ann Arbor, and it was flickering.

Soon after becoming editor, I got a plea from some students living in a dorm at the University of Michigan, asking High Times to come out and rejuvenate the annual event, which had shrunk to a handful of die-hards. I’d recently been introduced to an unpublished manuscript, The Emperor Wears No Clothes, and soon flew out to the valley where Jack lived. I wanted Jack to co-found a new legalization group with me. (NORML was not really interested in rallies at the time, as the images of old hippies created an image problem for them. NORML had also passed on Jack’s manuscript, which he’d offered to let them publish, and thought Jack’s claims were exaggerations.)

Of course, I wanted High Times to publish the book and Jack agreed I was the ideal editor. Jack also agreed to my plan of creating the Freedom Fighters. The idea of wearing tricorner hats as a publicity stunt to draw attention to hemp and away from recreational cannabis use was a big part of my initial vision. It also solved the “image problem” and added a fun element to the rallies. I wanted the Freedom Fighters to march into the rallies in a ceremonial fashion, in an attempt to take the flag back from the right wing. It was a very obvious attempt to flip the switch on the sigils they had been working by claiming the founding fathers as ours. At that first meeting, Jack and I discussed a Hemp Tour across the Midwest, that would start with the Hash Bash in Ann Arbor, and include my ala mater, the University of Illinois, once the center of hemp processing in Illinois, and then home to a very strong NORML chapter led by Debby Goldsberry, (current Freedom Fighter of the Year).

Jack and I created the organization and held our first national convention a day before the next Hash Bash. How many attendees can you identify? And how many of the state chapter heads from the convention went on to do big things in the cannabis reform movement?

My Brush with the Mob

Gary Indiana was built in the early 1900s. It started as a steel mill on the shores of Lake Michigan and the city was designed around the mill to house the factory workers. Gary was only 25 miles east of Chicago and a railway line connected the two cities. Soon there were many mills and a huge metropolis.

My mom grew up in Valparaiso, Indiana, which is very close to Gary. Her uncle Freddy was in charge of the numbers racket in Gary, and reportedly worked for the Chicago outfit run by Al Capone. But Uncle Freddy retired when the first big syndicate crackdown took place. His father (one of my great-grandfathers) had been a prominent rabbi in Chicago, and according to family legend, his dad never knew his son had become a gangster. My dad’s side of the family were mostly Germans who’d homesteaded in western Kansas after the Civil War and then drifted back to southeastern Kansas, a tiny town called Hepler. My parents met while attending Valparaiso University, a Lutheran college.

When my parents first began dating, Uncle Freddy would sometimes order his muscle to drive my mom and dad around. My parents told me about the parties at Uncle Freddy’s that they had attended. Freddy’s men also served as the bartenders and when they took off their jackets, they revealed their revolvers. No one messed with Uncle Freddy and his men.

Despite having a well-known local ex-gangster in the family, I never met any others and I don’t think the Jews in the USA ever created the sort of multi-generational crime families that were embedded in Sicilian society. We had some relatives that opened the Pink Pussycat strip club in Los Angeles, which became a favorite hangout for Frank Sinatra’s rat pack, though. The club even ran a school for strippers. My cousins went to California in the early 1960s, and even though they were underage, they were allowed to watch the floor show from backstage. Shortly after that, my cousin Tom bought a subscription to Playboy.

So that constituted my total awareness of the mob when I moved to New York around 1979. My first job in NYC was working as a reporter for Leo Shull’s Showbusiness, which really gave me a solid introduction to the seedy underbelly of Broadway (that’s Leo on the far left in the black shirt). From there I worked at several magazines, then the New York Daily News, and finally became a freelancer for a few years before I got hired by High Times. At first, that magazine was on the West Side near my apartment, but right after I got hired, they moved to 211 East 43rd St., which really disappointed me because that address was in the heart of midtown. I was riding a motorcycle at the time and midtown had zero parking for motorcycles.

However, on my first day to work, I decided to look around to see if I could find a free parking spot close to the office. I soon discovered a little horseshoe called Tudor City, a residential area hidden in the heart of midtown that allowed free parking on the street. I pulled into a spot next to a driveway and walked a block to work.

When Gary Pini heard about the location of my new office, he remarked there was a mob restaurant across the street. I never walked in the place. However, that night, when I went to pick up my motorcycle and drive home, someone had bumped my bike over. Fortunately, the damage was minimal. While I was picking the bike up, however, a black doorman appeared from inside the building and came out to talk to me. The upshot of his conversation was that there were some guys that parked here that I should not “mess around” with. I was too dumb, however, to pick up on his clues.

The next morning, I drove my bike back to the same location and pulled in between two cars, not wanting to park next to the driveway again. When I got off my bike, three dudes exited their vehicles at the same time and approached me.

“You can’t park here,” one of them said. These three guys did not look particularly intimidating. They certainly weren’t dressed in suits or expensive clothes.

“Why not?” I said.

“There’s not enough room,” he answered.

I looked around. There was plenty of room for my bike and I wasn’t really blocking anyone so I just said, “Hey, there’s plenty of room,” and just walked away off to work.

Many hours later, when I came back to ride home, I discovered the seat on my motorcycle had been completely slit from front to back. The knife had cut as deep as possible, so the seat was basically destroyed in a very violent fashion. I was thinking how dumb it was for those guys to do that since I knew who they were and what their vehicles looked like. My immediate thought was to whip up some concrete mix and stuff it into their three tailpipes.

When I got home, I went up to my apartment and got a needle and thread and some glue. I sewed the seat up (it took a hundred stitches at least) and then glued the thread so it wouldn’t come undone and the seal would remain water-tight. That night I realized my real situation. See, those three guys, they were obviously wise guys. I’d been warned by the doorman, and warned by them, and unless I got my act together, I was probably going to get kneecapped or worse.

So the next morning I parked on the other side of Tudor City and nowhere near where those guys kept their cars. I never saw or heard from them again, but it taught me an important lesson. When dealing with wise guys, make sure you read all the signals.

Thoughts on 420 Eve

The first reference to 420 I ever saw was a flyer handed out at an Oakland Grateful Dead show that was designed to pull people across the Bay to participate in a 4:20 pm ceremony on Mt. Tam on April 20th. A short blurb was published in the news section of High Times in May, 1991, which, strangely, did not mention I had announced to my staff that 420 was proof of cannabis spirituality. From the day I saw that flyer, I began organizing 420 ceremonies in earnest, and the big ones were held by the national hemp legalization group I’d started a year earlier called The Freedom Fighters. There were 420 ceremonies at the Freedom Fighter conventions and at the Freedom Fighter encampments at the Rainbow Gatherings, both the regional in Ocala, Florida, as well as the Nationals.

The first 420 ceremony at the Cannabis Cup was in 1993 simply because after founding the Cup, I did not return to the event for four years, stung by comments that I’d created the event only as a excuse to get high, and not as a serious event. The Cannabis Cup 4:20 pm ceremony began as an open council that everyone attending the Cup was invited to. Council always began with an OM, the ancient prayer from the far east that harmonizes people. I’ve done a lot of research into the origins of the “OM” and come to the conclusion it was created by the Sakka’s (Scythians) and moved around the world. OM has two sounds, the “O” rings the rib cage, and the “M” (also known as a y-buzz) rings the facial bones and skull. I also believe “Amen” is a western adaptation of the eastern “OM.” After the OM, we’d pass Eagle Bill’s Native American wooden staff (in place of a feather), and the person who held the staff was allowed to speak. In this manner we discussed how to move forward with the Cup and our ceremonies. In 1994, Eagle Bill was the master of ceremonies and high priest of 420 council. Later, this function was taken over by whatever counterculture icon we were honoring. For example, when Bob Marley was inducted in our hall of fame, Rita Marley was the high priestess, and Ras Menelik was the high priest.

By 1995, there were numerous 420 pm and am ceremonies taking place at the Cannabis Cup. All the am ceremonies were held in the lobby of the Quentin Hotel, where the staff and performers stayed. I didn’t really organize 4:20 am ceremonies. The Temple Dragon Crew (protectors of the Cannabis Cup) began organizing those. Basically dozens of people would show up and chant and sing for hours until 4:20 am, and then everyone would line-up under a big clock in the lobby of the Quentin Hotel and have their picture taken at exactly 4:20. When I found out the crew was doing this, I joined that ceremony. I would credit Rocker T as a primary instigator of the 420 am’s.

The biggest 420 am celebration was always the night of the awards show, as many would return to the States the next day and usually there was a lot of cannabis left to consume. Entire kolas would be set on fire in the hotel lobby and passed around and sniffed. Later on, the crew took slabs of waterhash and used them as papers, filling the insides with cannabis. Those hash/weed joints were each worth hundreds of dollars and would be consumed in a matter of a few minutes.

The Waldos contacted the Cannabis Cup in 1997. This is the same year 420 starts at Boulder, Colorado, although some try to claim there were 420 ceremonies in Boulder prior to 1997, I’d like to see some proof of those claims before I’ll swallow that story. I published the true origins of 420 in High Times after meeting the Waldos in 1998, around the same time I created the WHEE! festival in Oregon, which was ten times bigger than the Cup. Whee!, like the Cannabis Cup, used 420 as the central ceremony of the event.

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