At 76-years-old, Tommy Chong is at the height of his career. It was nearly 40 years ago when the best-selling author, writer, director, Grammy-winning comedian and cannabis business entrepreneur’s 1978 cult-classic “Up In Smoke” was released. The seminal movie celebrated the drug counterculture of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Since then, Chong has claimed his stake in the legal industry – not just through sales of the old-school hits, but through licensing deals, appearances and products celebrating his now-legendary role in the booming legal cannabis movement and industry.
Chong, the son of a Scots-Irish mother and Chinese immigrant father, was born in 1938 in Edmonton, Alberta. As a child, he was ostracized from his predominately-white community and gravitated towards music, specifically the new all-black jazz scene sweeping Calgary at the time. Those jazz musicians introduced Chong to marijuana, which, like music, would become a lifetime passion.
He dropped out of school at 16 to play guitar and had a mildly successful career in music as part of the Motown group Bobby Taylor & The Vancouvers before pairing up with Richard “Cheech” Marin and forming the iconic comedy duo Cheech & Chong. The pair would go on to star in six films together, including “Up in Smoke.” They parted ways in the 1980s but reunited in 2012 for the “Get It Legal” tour to promote legalization.
In 2003, fresh off the launch of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the George W. Bush administration targeted Chong as the kingpin in an interstate drug paraphernalia scheme. The $12 million operation, referred to by the DEA as Operation Pipe Dreams, targeted hundreds of businesses and homes of business owners selling pipes and bongs for use of marijuana. Despite the sale of glass pipes being legal in most states, the DEA used laws preventing their sale in the states of Iowa and Pennsylvania to shape its case against their targets.
Although he financed the company Chong Glass Works/Nice Dreams, which was owned and operated by his son Paris, Chong wasn’t involved with day-to-day operations. A fictitious shop set up by the DEA in Pittsburgh contacted Chong Glass for over eight months before they caved and sent a shipment of pipes, breaking Pennsylvania law.
That year, Chong’s L.A. home was raided by the DEA and a SWAT team with helicopter backup. He was accused of using his celebrity to market his crimes and appeal to children. Specific references to the running jokes mocking law enforcement in Cheech & Chong movies were mentioned throughout the DEA’s documentation — the arrest was political.
He agreed to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy in exchange for the freedom of his wife and son. He was sentenced to nine months in a private prison near Bakersfield, California and ordered to pay $20,000 in fines.
While incarcerated, he penned his memoir “I Chong: Meditations from the Joint,” which is structured along the teachings of the I Ching, or the Book of Changes, one of the oldest texts in Chinese literature. The book is a reflection on his life and the changes he was undergoing in prison, which motivated him to become a stronger public advocate for the changing laws.
In 2013, Chong stated publicly he had cured his prostate cancer using full extract cannabis oil, also known as Rick Simpson Oil (RSO). At 76, he became the oldest contestant on Dancing With the Stars to make it to the semi-finals and chose not to use cannabis throughout the experience to prove it wasn’t addictive.
Cannabis Now Magazine caught up with Tommy Chong to talk prison, politics and advocacy.
CANNABIS NOW MAGAZINE: When you and Cheech were making movies back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, were there any predictions made about your long-term drug use and the effect it would have on your health in the future?
TOMMY CHONG: Not with weed, you know, just with every other kind of drug. The great thing about pot is you just stay in the moment; you never go in the future. A lot of people smoke weed just so they can stay out of the future.
When you were in prison you wrote I Chong: Meditations from the Joint. At the time of publishing, George W. Bush was president and you rightfully called out your arrest as political, saying it was a distraction during the launch of the Iraq War. When President Obama was elected, a lot of the cannabis industry and community came to his support, yet he has funded the Drug War more than Bush or Clinton. What is your opinion on Barack Obama’s approach to marijuana policy?
You just have to realize that Obama is controlled by big business — oil, pharmaceuticals — all the big business people control all administrations, but especially Obama. You can tell that Obama is hooked up with big business for one simple fact — the fact he is still alive. If he were like [Presidents] Kennedy or Carter, he would be dead by now. The simplest thing in the world would be to get rid of him.
I don’t blame him personally because we know in his heart — he is an old pothead himself — that he would like nothing better than to legalize it just like ending Guantanamo Bay. In his heart that is what he would do. I don’t take anything presidents do personally because they are controlled by the big business.
When you were in prison you temporarily shared a cell with Jordan Belfort, author and protagonist of “The Wolf of Wall Street.” You encouraged him to write the memoir that would go on to be the best-selling book and hit movie. Did he inspire you in any way?
Well, no. When I met Jordan he was a criminal, for want of a better word. I just showed him by example. I was calm, cool, collected and more famous than he was.He kind of figured out that my way was much better than his way. His way was stealing and lying and my way was just being very honest and gaining what he has always lacked all of his life — respect. He found out that from talking with me at night. He would tell me all these great stories at night. His persona was like a con man and I just encouraged him to be himself and become famous that way. That is the best way. Underneath that conman exterior is this — Jordan is a genius. He is MENSA material, you know, photographic memory and all that stuff. I just uncovered what was already there.
Since you have been released from prison you have done a lot of appearances on Fox News programs. Fox is notoriously conservative and anti-drug. Why do you feel it’s important to address this particular audience?
They love me because I am the opposite, but I am a likable opposite. I don’t get emotional, so they love me. They love the ratings. Fox — all those guys — they are just in it for the ratings, they are in it for the money and they will say anything to get ratings. It’s not their personal beliefs. Most of them are intelligent, but they have to tow the conservative line because it brings in the most viewers.[My appearances were] kind of accidental. I was on Bill O’Reilly or something like that and I said something crazy and it went viral. Ever since then whenever they want to stir up the pot a little bit, they get Tommy Chong on there.
By the way, that got me in trouble before I got busted. I used to do the same thing on conservative talk radio and I was on a radio show in St. Louis, Missouri, and it was a very right-wing talk show.
Back in the day I used to out everybody. I would say “Oh, yeah, I smoked dope with all these guys.” I said I had smoked dope with Danny Sullivan [a famous racecar driver] and the phones went crazy because of the right-wing people. Danny was a very hip Republican hero of theirs. That pissed a lot of people off and [Former U.S. Attorney General John] Ashcroft was one of the listeners of those shows. I think that set the wheels in motion to get Tommy Chong because it was so outrageous.
I don’t really challenge them. They bait everyone; they try to bait you into being outrageous and being a left-wing liberal. What I do is just think like I did before. I would be on [Stuart] Varney’s show for instance and I would say things like “Hey Varney, that was quite a party we had last night. You know, the naked chicks dancing on the table?” He blushed and went crazy but he loved that kind of stuff.
I am a darling of the conservative talk show hosts because I am harmlessly entertaining but I get my left wing views across very well.
You have said that getting busted has been good for your career. Can you explain what you mean by that?
First of all, I was not a criminal – I could have walked. I had a choice, I was innocent and legally they had nothing to hold me on. The only way they could get me was to threaten my wife and family. This is the U.S. government threatening to put my wife and son in jail if I didn’t roll over for them. Of course I had to do what they wanted to do.
If it was just a bong charge, the government would have just given me house arrest and that’s what they promised me, anyway. Of course, that never happened. No, they wanted to make an example out of me. On the contrary, I wanted to make an example of them. I succeeded in destroying them, including Mary Beth Buchanan, the prosecutor [who is responsible for Chong’s arrest and incarceration].
She was trying to run for Republican office after I had gotten out of jail. The Democrats in Pittsburgh sent me a ticket and asked me to just come and be there, as a reminder of what Mary Beth Buchanan had done. I did and she lost by a landslide. She is no longer in politics anymore.
Would you say you identify more as an advocate or a comedian and would you say you have always identified that way throughout your career?
I evolved into an advocate. When I formed Cheech and Chong the first thing I wanted to do was not to call us a group, like the committee or some sort of acting group, I wanted to put our name out there: Cheech and Chong, this is who we are. It personalized what we did. I have always been more than a comedian, although I never really wanted to be a comedian. It was easier than being in a band. Because we had that talent. Cheech and I had that talent — it was just natural.
You have also advocated publicly for fellow Canadian prisoner Marc Emery, often wearing “Free Marc” shirts in your mainstream interviews. He was recently released from prison in the U.S. and is now home in Canada. Have you spoken with him since he has been released and have you found any common experiences in your arrests, trials and incarcerations?
We did speak all the time he was in jail. I haven’t spoken with him since he has been out. I counseled him before he went into jail because we both knew — especially after my experiences — that he was going down. Marc’s was another political move by the Republicans. They showed just how powerful their reach is — they reached into Canada and pulled him out and made him do time in a United States prison — much like Cuba [and the situation in Guantanamo Bay]. Mark was lucky he, at least, had a timeline on his sentence. He was a pure political prisoner; he committed no crime, not Canadian crime or really any U.S. crime. They had to make it up. By the way, this is how powerful this government is. If they want to put you in jail, they will put you in jail first and then decide what charges to lay on you.
If the U.S. government wants to get you, start a war or do whatever they want to do, they are the most powerful nation on the planet and they will do it without checks, balances — nothing. In spite of that, it’s still the best place in the world to live. It’s a little mix of gangsterism but again we have the righteous people, the Elizabeth Warrens, who are still powerful enough to put a stop to the most serious reaches.
How has being a cancer patient who used cannabis to get healthy changed your approach, if at all, to the cultural aspects of the cannabis world?
I have always been a health nut all my life. I started lifting weights when I was 16. I drank and smoked but I quit all those bad habits over the years. I have always been like a bodybuilder. My first aim in life was to come to California and work out in a gym, live on the beach and write songs —it’s all I wanted to do.
In my workout days with the weights and all that I came across the healthiest people on the planet. All they wanted to do was get healthy. I met people like Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was five-times Mr. Olympia. He wouldn’t put anything in his body unless it helped him. He wouldn’t drink any alcohol or eat any sugar or do anything wrong with his health. But, the one thing he did do on occasion was smoke marijuana. He knew from research it was the healthiest way. Smoking marijuana not only relieves the tension and makes life wonderful, it’s good for the mental health for the patient. That has been proven more and more.
You mentioned Arnold Schwarzenegger. When you were preparing to enter prison you did an interview for a documentary you were in about how he was running for Governor of California and you joked about him winning. He obviously did win the election and became the second famous actor (after Ronald Reagan) to hold the title. What are your thoughts on that?
Well, you see what happened was, I was free at the time. I said if Schwarzenegger gets voted in then we are a nation of idiots. Don’t get me wrong, I love Arnold as a bodybuilder but as a governor, he was big business. He was all big business.
Arnold is a great guy and I loved him but as a governor, but I was spot on with that. What’s happening now on the political scene, including Barack Obama, the whole population is focused on issues that had been decided 60 years ago like voter rights and abortion — all these lame issues that have already been decided. The reason they are doing that is to keep peoples’ minds off the real issue, which is tax evasion. All these rich millionaires and billionaires in America are waltzing through life without paying their fair share of taxes. As long as they keep people worried about the black man voting in the rural south — these are issue that have been solved — they are gonna keep the real news off the front page. Oil companies don’t pay their fair share of taxes. General Electric doesn’t pay its fair share of taxes. They are beating the middle class to death; they are eliminating the middle class through taxation.
In the meantime, the electorate has choices like Mitt Romney or Sarah Palin — all these straw dogs that are just thrown up there. Now it’s Ted Cruz. The reason they got Ted Cruz in there (because he doesn’t have a hope in hell of winning anything) is a million dollar book deal. That’s how these guys like Bill O’Reilly get paid off. He publishes books monthly and almost all of them are best sellers. They get everybody trying to listen to all the bullshit these guys write about. It’s all about the money and until people wake up and realize that and start voting the right people in, America is gonna be just what it is. They are still gonna be putting guys like me in jail for selling bongs.
My last questions were written by federal inmates serving time for marijuana crimes. All are big fans of yours and excited to count you among them. The first is from Luke Scarmazzo, who is serving a 20-year mandatory minimum in California for operating a medical marijuana dispensary in the early 2000s. Luke asks: “With marijuana legalization sentiments sweeping across the nation, do you think the leaders of the cannabis industry should take a more active role in prison reform, more specifically in cannabis incarceration advocacy?”
Yeah. The people who should take responsibility are the people who put them jail and that’s the legal profession. They should take over and start getting people out who were incarcerated unfairly. [Recently the Obama Administration has announced clemency plans for some prisoners and] whenever issues like this come up there are headlines about early releases of prisoners but they have no actual intention of doing it, it’s just a headline.
In fact, when I was in prison there were people that should have been released. They had the papers and everything else, but are still being held, just like Guantanamo Bay [the U.S. military prison in Cuba used to hold detainees from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan]. They are being held because they are caught up being political prisoners. [The government] can’t release these guys without being sued for millions of dollars, they are prolonging the inevitable. Once these guys get out of jail, I hope they get good lawyers on a contingency basis and sue the fuck out of everybody. That’s what is coming down the pipe.
It’s the same with [asset] forfeiture. You know, they took $100,000 cash from me [during the bust] that had nothing to do whatsoever with pot. When I get my record expunged I am going to go after them for the forfeiture because we [all] should. The reason these guys are in jail is because [the government] is between a rock and a hard place. By letting them go, they are admitting they were wrong. By keeping them in there they are wrong. What the government should do, if they had a heart, they would let them go and create a fund to help these people financially and to at least give them back the years of their life, financially, that they lost.
This issue isn’t about right and wrong, it’s a money issue. Unfortunately, that’s what’s going on. My suggestion to people in jail is to take advantage of your situation. If you need any medical procedures — open-heart surgery or something like that — they are mandated to take care of you and you have access to all the educational tools imaginable in prison. When I was incarcerated I was with people who got two or three degrees while in prison. The knowledge is free. While in prison, don’t just sit there and moan and groan — go to work on yourself. Do what Nelson Mandela did. Just because you are behind bars doesn’t mean you are dead, you are very much alive. Do what I did and got Jordan Belfort doing — writing books. Read everything you can get. That’s the advice I give everyone. You have time so read every book you can find. Take advantage of this moment, it can be beneficial for you.
But don’t think that legalization will help your legal problems.
This question is from Dustin Costa, who is serving a 15-year mandatory minimum for legally operating a dispensary in Southern California in the early 2000s. First, he wanted you to know that because the federal Bureau of Prisons encourages inmates to write their memoirs, like you did while incarcerated, he and a group of prisoners are starting an organization called Slammerbooks.com to encourage more inmates to publish their stories, to give them a voice.
Finally, Dustin asks: “What was it like jamming with Jimi Hendrix?”
It was surreal. Jimi played bass and I was stuck on the guitar, but I am not the best guitar player in the world. Hanging with Jimi was the best and finding out Jimi was a fan of the band — that was the biggest thrill of my life. He used to come up to Vancouver to see my shows; we encouraged Jimi to rise to his greatness.
An excerpted version of this interview appeared in issue 15 of Cannabis Now Magazine.