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medical marijuana cbd hemp weed smoking joint leafly flowers cannabis cox 92medical marijuana cbd hemp weed smoking joint leafly flowers cannabis cox 92 Hard times for High Times and other cannabis media outlets. Crystal Cox/Business Insider

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  • Cannabis media companies from legacy outlets like High Times to digital outlets like Leafly are facing a reckoning from the triple whammy of the economic fallout of the pandemic, a downturn in the cannabis industry, and a broader media implosion.
  • Cannabis outlets have been forced to cut costs by suspending print, laying off employees, and scaling back acquisitions and growth plans.
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Cannabis media companies from the old guard like High Times to the digitally native are facing a reckoning, as the economic fallout from the pandemic adds to their woes.

This year, at least five cannabis-media firms have laid off dozens of employees, and also taken steps to rein in spending like suspending print magazines, and cutting freelance budgets and travel costs. That adds to a cannabis-industry downturn that began in late 2019, as companies were forced to cancel deals, lay off thousands of employees, and fire executives.

To be sure, there’s a slew of cannabis-specific media outlets that are thriving and even growing, WeedWeek, and Marijuana Moment among them. Plus, mainstream news outlets from Politico to the Boston Globe are beefing up their cannabis coverage, as is Business Insider.

But many cannabis media companies are contending with a broader digital-media downturn, economic uncertainty due to the pandemic, and a slump within the cannabis industry itself. 

While cannabis media publications admittedly serve a niche audience, the way cannabis is covered in the media is a barometer for how society’s views have shifted on the drug, from being a “punchline” in the mainstream press to covered like any other multi-billion industry, said Andrew Matranga, an associate teaching professor at the University of Denver’s media, film, and journalism program.

“The beauty of where we’re at is that general publications are covering cannabis like any other business,” he said. “It’s moved from the punchline to the lede, it’s the peak of normalization.”

High Times — perhaps the grandfather of cannabis media, founded in 1974 — has not produced a print magazine since April, and has laid off the majority of its editorial staff, according to multiple media reports. The laid-off staffers include longtime writer Danny Danko, among other notable employees. Four former employees have created a competing publication, Northeast Leaf. 

For niche cannabis publications, Matranga says that outside of a few examples, it’s “the beginning of the end.” As for High Times specifically, Matranga said the “writing on the wall has been there for a long time,” as the general public’s perception of cannabis has moved past dated cultural tropes. 

High Times was not immediately available for comment. 

High Times’ owner, Hightimes Holding Corp., has also laid off staffers at the Seattle-based DOPE Magazine, which it acquired in 2018, and put the rest of DOPE’s staff on furlough until “the virus passes,” Hightimes Holding Executive Chairman Adam Levin said in a statement to Marijuana Moment. DOPE Magazine has suspended publication, and another Hightimes Holding acquisition, Culture Magazine, put its remaining employees on furlough and suspended publication as well.

On top of that, High Times had attempted to branch out into branded retail stores by acquiring 10 California dispensaries from Harvest Health & Recreation, though the deal hasn’t yet closed.

In recent months, Hightimes Holdings had planned an initial public offering, though the Securities and Exchange Commission forced the company to halt the planned offering as it missed a deadline to file its audited financial report.

The company was pursuing a Regulation A IPO, which allows private companies to raise up to $50 million from the general public.

Cannabis A long way from Cheech and Chong. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante

Layoffs at Cannabis Now, Civilized, and Leafly 

High Times isn’t the only cannabis magazine to stumble in recent months. Cannabis Now laid off three employees in March as the pandemic hit, including its longtime editor, as well as employees at its retail store in Los Angeles, Cannabis Now’s publisher Eugenio Garcia confirmed to Business Insider. 

Garcia said the company paused printing physical copies of the magazine as most of its distribution is in airports and train stations, which saw much less traffic this year due to the pandemic. Cannabis Now’s most recent issue hit newsstands in July, Garcia said. The company faced other challenges: Its Los Angeles retail store was the subject of hours of looting and break-ins in June during the spate of protests over the police killing of George Floyd.

Cannabis media and information company Leafly laid off 40% of its staffers or 91 employees in March, a cost-cutting measure the company’s leadership blamed on the pandemic in a statement to Business Insider. Leafly had been forced to rein in spending and cut employees prior to that, as the promise of rapid growth in the cannabis industry failed to materialize.

Since then, Leafly has been able to raise $3.6 million and continue operations. 

Other cannabis media companies struggled before the pandemic hit. In the last quarter of 2019, the cannabis industry — both on the public and private side — sharply corrected as the investors tightened their wallets around the budding industry. The rapid spread of cannabis legalization, and the riches that many entrepreneurs and investors had hoped for, failed to materialize as quickly as some expected. 

Civilized, a cannabis digital media and events company, laid off all of its remaining employees in November, according to a Business Insider investigation into the startup’s downfall.

Civilized CEO Terri Riedle told Business Insider the company is in talks to restructure its debt with investor Canopy Rivers, find new capital, and hire staffers for a relaunch, though Riedle did not share the full details of the plan. 

Weedmaps, a cannabis review and information site, laid off 25% of its staff, including the majority of its editorial department, in October over what Chris Beals, the company’s CEO, said was the delayed rollout of new state cannabis markets and the “tightening” of cannabis tech financial markets over the last quarter of 2019.

MassRoots, a technology and media platform for the cannabis industry, had only $1,120 of cash on hand by December 2019, according to a securities filing reviewed by Business Insider. The company received a $50,000 loan from the Small Business Administration under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act’s Paycheck Protection Program.

Outside of specific local outlets, Matranga said the “train has left the station” for some of these cannabis media startups to rehire journalists, even when the pandemic winds down and the economy improves.

“That might be a doomsday outlook, but I don’t think you’re going to see newsrooms staffing up again,” Matranga said. 

Would you like to talk about your experience in the cannabis industry? Reach out to this reporter at jberke@businessinsider.com, twitter (@jfberke) or through the secure messaging app Signal at 646 376 6002.

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