Tommy Chong: A Life in Full
At 84, Hollywood and cannabis icon Tommy Chong ain’t slowing down a bit.
Watching the movie classic Up in Smoke and listening to “Earache My Eye” were pretty much the extent of my Tommy Chong awareness. Did I know Chong was a certifiable living legend as an advocate and champion of the plant? Yes, I did. But, why he was a legend exactly remained elusive to me even as I saw him arrive at the Cosmopolitan hotel on the Las Vegas strip for our exclusive interview.
Of course I knew he was half of the genius cinematic comedic duo Cheech & Chong (along with Cheech Marin), but what I didn’t perhaps appreciate was just how important Chong was to modern cannabis culture. There’s clearly a reason why Chong is considered among the weed all-time greats—Snoop Dogg, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan—and I was determined to find out what precisely that reason was.
As I researched the 84-year-old Hollywood actor, I was fascinated to learn more about the circumstances surrounding the time Chong was incarcerated simply for selling glass bongs, or that his entire professional career was more or less dedicated to the elevation of cannabis. Yes, I was excited to meet Chong to commence exploring the legend’s second-to-none history with the herb.
Chong had come to Vegas to be honored at the annual Cannabis Conference with the organization’s inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award. His wife Shelby, son Paris, daughter-in-law Rahma and two-year-old granddaughter joined him on the trip (Chong’s second trek to Sin City in as many days). Earlier in the week, local officials honored the movie buddies by designating August 22 Cheech and Chong Day in Clark County.
After all that anticipation, I almost missed him as Chong walked inside the luxe Cosmo, ahead of his family. His slicked-back hair with his unmistakable beard caught my eye at the last second, though, giving us a moment to shake hands before he checked in and disappeared up an elevator to his suite. Nowhere to be found were Chong’s glasses, headband and shoulder-length locks that were synonymous with his and Cheech’s silver screen heyday half a century ago. But his current, cleaner look feels right for him now.
“I love this spot, man,” Chong tells me in a deep, gruff, yet friendly voice.
Chong, in a trendy-looking, long-sleeve button-up shirt with black pants and a bright-colored pair of red, yellow, blue and white sneakers, looked ready to venture straight into Vegas’ notorious neon jungle, but his family convinced him to freshen up first.
Waiting for the man of the hour in the expansive lobby—I was joined by Cannabis Now Founder and Publisher Eugenio García—as we were all set to accompany Chong to the Cannabis Conference and then on a trip to NuWu, a Native American-owned mega-dispensary on tribal land near downtown Vegas. It was worth the wait.
García led the legendary stoner to the waiting limousine SUV as I grabbed a seat in the middle row, next to Chong, and fired up the audio recorder on my phone. Unprompted, Chong jumped right in and started talking about his time in prison, and how far cannabis culture has progressed in the past couple of decades. The game was on, and I was so here for it.
Chong spent nine months—from October 2003 to July 2004—in prison at 65, after getting caught up in a federal crackdown on paraphernalia vendors, mostly people selling glass bongs. The feds alleged that a pair of companies he ran with Shelby and Paris, named Chong Glass and Nice Dreams, were somehow illegal because they promoted drug use. To be clear, Chong’s family never sold marijuana or any drug of any kind—only bongs and pipes.
“I had such a crazy childhood—I was separated from my mother very early; she had tuberculosis and went to a sanitarium for five years,” Chong says to me as we head to the awards dinner. “Meantime, I went to another hospital for pleurisy, then they took me to an orphanage. When I went to prison all of those years later, it felt, in a way, like I was going home because I had more of an incarcerated upbringing than someone from a so-called ‘normal’ family. And I think that helped me find my way in that particular universe.”
Although it’s been nearly two decades since he left prison, that experience understandably has profoundly affected how Chong sees himself and the world writ large. He says he became close friends with his cellmate, Jordan Belfort, the so-called “Wolf of Wall Street”—memorably portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in the award-winning film—and claims to be the inspiration behind pushing Belfort to publish his memoirs that the movie was based on. Still, as he continues to reminisce about his time behind bars, Chong’s kinda-sorta deflecting answering most of my questions during the ride. But I persist as I must, and upon asking him, “What about cannabis culture?” Chong finally offers the following bon mot: “It’s like living in a dream.”
García, on cue, hands Chong a pre-roll, and it’s like a switch suddenly went on in the movie star’s head. Chong respectfully accepts an invitation to hit the blunt, packed with a strain of his Cheech & Chong brand flower, after the driver gives his blessing to hotbox the car. Chong fixes his eyes on the blunt as he inhales, then closes them as a smooth channel of smoke emerges from his mouth and nose. It takes me a moment to realize that I’m with Tommy Chong as the man was getting high. How. Cool. Is. That.
We arrive at the decidedly less glamorous Paris Hotel where Chong’s scheduled to sign autographs at the Cannabis Conference. Chong’s already starting to lighten up as he walks through the casino floor on our way to the hotel’s massive convention area. A handful of wide-eyed casino and restaurant patrons offer the predictable “I love you, Tommy!” while a bold pair of tourists jump in front of him for a quick selfie.
I figure being an iconic comedian and internationally known cannabis advocate would be exhausting, having to deal with strangers approaching you every time you’re out in public. But Chong is remarkably receptive and welcoming to everyone that wants to meet him. In fact, it’s apparent he enjoys talking and hanging out with fans just as much as the suits and bigwigs making this whole trip happen.
A middle-aged couple stops him for a picture. It takes longer than expected to capture the photo, though, because Chong starts talking cannabis policy with them. “If more people in this world were open-minded like you two, it’d be a much better place,” he tells them, emphatically.
Chong is now fully present and engaged. He’s as eager to listen as he is to talk, and it’s thrilling, frankly. He signs autographs and poses for pictures at the FOHSE booth for the better part of 45 minutes; then we hop back into the black SUV to continue our conversation on the way to NuWu.
Chong is endearing and earnest, a man transformed, thanks to the plant. Now fully engaged, Chong looks me in the eyes when speaking, revealing an authenticity hard to find in the famous. He seems more like a friend than a celebrity. And I realize that just may be his not-so-secret sauce. Gotcha! That’s why he’s so beloved.
Chong turns the subject to spirituality as it relates to the plant and says, bluntly, “It’s fucking medicine! It’s not going to hurt anybody.” But he’s quick to dismiss the idea that cannabis has come full circle from when the US government first demonized and then outlawed it back in the 1930s. He says the plant’s redemption story won’t be complete until cannabis becomes federally legal. And he also believes it will happen soon.
Our trip to the tribal dispensary, which includes Vegas’ only cannabis consumption lounge, shows Chong what the future holds. Customers rip bongs, take dabs and puff on joints in a classy, upscale bar-like setting without the alcohol. The Las Vegas Paiute Tribe has special permission to run cannabis businesses on their land with perks that weed companies off the reservation don’t yet enjoy. A young NuWu shopper, decked out in a black shirt with massive green cannabis leaves on the front, recognizes Chong on his way out of the store. Before pedaling away on his bicycle, the man scoots up to our motorcade and asks the 84-year-old where his comedy partner is.
“Cheech!” The man yells, in a case of mistaken identity. “Where’s your other half? You can’t go anywhere without Chong.”
“Chong’s an idiot,” the real Chong growls back in response, smiling to himself.
I kept wondering if Chong would get tired, when he’d start acting indifferent, like he was over the whole thing. A few hours in and I’m still waiting for him to at least ask for a break or to retire to his room for a few minutes. He never does.
The Tommy Chong experience was as genuine as it gets for a Hollywood star in real life. He’s living proof of the plant’s incredible powers—and a man who has lived a life in full.
This story was originally published in issue 47 of the print edition of Cannabis Now.