The year is 2016.
The world is changing in ways that people could have never imagined. A
black man in President of the United States. Gay marriage is the law of
the land. England has left the European Union. A reality TV
personality with a bad toupee is the Presidential nominee of one of the
major political parties of the United States. The other nominee is a
woman. Her main competition in the primaries was a self-described
socialist. A Jewish socialist at that. Many of the societal
bogeymen are falling.
And marijuana is no
longer being stigmatized.
This is a time that
Tommy Chong has been waiting for most of his life. After all, with his
comic partner Cheech Marin, Chong has been on the front line of the weed
counterculture for decades. However, today, more than half the American
people support the legalization of marijuana. Not only that, 25 states
have legalized marijuana for medical purposes. Of those, four states
have also legalized weed for recreational purposes. Even in those areas
that have not yet legalized pot, many have decriminalized possession.
The dam has broken,
and when it did it went shockingly fast. Past ideals and prejudices
have been washed away.
So, Tommy Chong, how
does it feel?
It's like having a new electric car,” Chong laughed. “We should have
had them years earlier, but I'll take it right now. That's the way I
feel about legalization now. It's great.”
He has a right to do
a victory lap, because Cheech & Chong are probably as responsible for
the popular appeal of marijuana as anyone in popular culture. Starting
in the beginning of the 1970s, the duo were stand-up comics during the
boom era of comedy albums. After a series of bestselling records like
Big Bambu, Los Cochinos and Cheech & Chong’s Wedding Album,
they graduated into films in the 80s like Up in Smoke, Next
Movie, Still Smokin’ and Nice Dreams. By the time they broke
up in 1985, Cheech & Chong had done more for pot awareness than anyone.
He also has more
knowledge than most of medicinal benefits, as a two-time cancer
survivor. Chong also learned firsthand about the tight unfairness of
marijuana laws, ending up spending almost a year in jail in 2003 for
selling “drug paraphernalia.” (That’s bongs, for you and me.)
While Chong has
always treated the drug lifestyle with humor, he was not blinded to the
unfairness of the system. Though African Americans and Latinos did not
use drugs any more than their white neighbors, the chances of those
groups getting stopped, searched, arrested, prosecuted, convicted and
incarcerated were way higher in those communities. Many people, Chong
included, believe that this was a conscious effort on the part of law
enforcement to focus on low-income, urban areas.
Therefore, it is all
the more pleasing to him that public and legal attitudes have changed.
“Well, you know, they
are catching up with reality. We've lived in a racist culture forever,
ever since America was discovered,” Chong laughed, a little ruefully.
“It was all on the back of black and brown people. The marijuana law
was just one of the last blatantly racist laws out there. It's a mixed
feeling, you know? I went to jail for selling a medical device, when
you think about it. It doesn't harm anyone. Marijuana has never harmed
anybody. So the reason to make it illegal was purely racist. And for
However, despite his
previous bad experience in selling “paraphernalia,” now that
legalization is taking over, Chong is back in the weed business.
Actually, in two ways, having a company with his old partner as well as
his own brand, Chong’s Choice.
“Well, the Cheech &
Chong brand, we're selling everything,” Chong explained. “All the bongs
and so on. We're out of Canada, so I'm protected, because it's still
against the law down here. But the Chong's Choice is mainly flower and
oil. Instead of going for certain strains, what we've done is we've
formed a distribution company. What we do is we find the best growers
in the country, all over the place. We partner up with them. We put
our label on just the best product out there. If it's got a Chong's
Choice label on there, you can be guaranteed that it's quality product.
We don't mess around with anything synthetic, or anything inferior, or
anything dangerous, like moldy pot. Chong's Choice means quality.”
But how does someone
get it? Will they be in stores in states like Colorado and Washington
“Yeah, they are going
to be in stores all over,” Chong said. “They're already in some stores
in Washington and in some stores in California. The Compassion Club in
Malibu carries our products. Every state in the union will eventually
be a Chong Choice state.”
Chong is also going
on the tech tip, creating a new cell phone app called “SmokEMOJIs.”
“They are all emojis
that deal with marijuana,” he explained. “We're the only ones that are
doing it. We've got a lock on the pot emojis.”
Chong is looking at
Chong’s Choice as a businessman, and yet he also realizes that he is on
the ground floor of a new frontier. Many people believe that when the
marijuana industry becomes big and profitable enough, big pharma and
maybe even the tobacco companies may try to move in and muscle out all
of the smaller vendors. Surprisingly, Chong welcomes the competition.
“Listen, it's dog eat
dog in the capitalistic world,” he said. “It's like fish in the ocean.
If you're a small fish, the bigger fish are out to eat you. But if
you're smart, you will grow into a big fish. Just because you grew pot
when it was illegal, no one said that when it was legal that you are
going to get any kind of head start. That's not the way it works.
Welcome to the capitalist system. Big pharma is the big fish.
“The good thing about
it is that they can't control it, like they controlled soy beans, with
GMOs (genetically modified organisms). There is no GMOing marijuana.
So marijuana is going to be more like wine. They have specialties.
Like myself, my company will be finding the best growers and the best
growers are going to find me. I don't care about the big companies. If
they are growing quality stuff, then they can hook up with me and put
the Chong stamp on that. I don't really care. I'm not worried about
big or small anything. It's just like being an actor. You will go as
far as your talent will take you. That's the same thing as the
marijuana world. You get in the business; you'll go as far as your
talent will take you.”
Chong’s home state of
California appears like it may be the next state to legalize marijuana
for recreational usage. California had previously been the first to
legalize medicinal marijuana – way back in 1996. Chong mostly likes the
idea of his state being the next domino to fall.
“Well, it looks like
it,” Chong said. “They have a ballot. It is causing a lot of concern
with some of the pot activists, but it's been getting approved by NORML
(National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) and Marijuana
Project. So, I really am a backer of the ballot in California, and I'm
quite sure it's going to pass and then it's going to be legal
Of course, this has
been a particularly crazy period in American politics, with the far
right Tea Party trying to do away with many rights that have already
been established. Add to this a crazily divided general election –
Chong had been a Bernie Sanders supporter – could the outcome of the
elections change the direction of so much of the progress of the cause?
Chong is quite
certain that will not be the case.
“Not at all,” he
said, firmly. “Not at all. Look at it this way. We lived through
George Bush. We lived through Richard Nixon. Nixon was the one that
started this war on drugs. He formed the DEA (Drug Enforcement
Agency). These are racist Presidents that supported racist policies. I
mean, we've got Donald Trump there, but Donald Trump really is a media
invention. He has created such a bonanza for the media, simply because
he is the perfect candidate to insure that Hillary is going to be the
next President.” He laughed.
As mentioned before,
Chong even suffered for his beliefs, spending nine months in jail for
selling glass pipes in 2003-2004. In a Cleveland stand-up performance
that Chong did with his wife Shelby Fiddis right after the DEA raid that
ended up sending Chong to jail, I saw Chong tell his story. The DEA
looked at the glassware and asked if these could not be used as bongs.
Chong just looked at him, surprised, and said “You know I’m Tommy Chong,
Years later, Chong
laughs when I remind him of that line. Surprisingly, he actually has a
very healthy attitude about the arrest.
“You know, everything
happens for a reason,” Chong reasoned. “Everything. That's what we
have to realize on this planet. The trick is when things happen, look
for the reason. That's what I did. I actually said out loud to a
friend of mine before I got busted, ‘I need something to boost my
career.’ A week later I got busted for pot. So be careful for what you
wish for. No, I was glad I got busted, because it put me in another
category. It gave my career another boost.”
It did, indeed.
Almost 20 years after Cheech & Chong broke up, he and Marin started
performing together again. Chong also landed a role – written with the
actor in mind – on the hit sitcom That 70s Show. (The role
actually started a few years before the arrest.) Suddenly Tommy Chong
was back on top. Or at least somewhere in the middle.
Even in Cheech &
Chong’s glory days of releasing records – they even had hit singles with
such comic bits as “Earache, My Eye” and “Sister Mary Elephant” – much
of the success felt like a surprise, almost a fluke, to the comedian.
“Well, again, we were
like a small pot company,” he laughed. “We were up against some really
big names: Steve Martin, Bill Cosby, The Smothers Brothers, George
Carlin, Richard Pryor. There were all sorts of other comics out there.
What Cheech and I did, we discovered Mexican humor and we discovered pot
humor. We were the first where the potheads were the heroes, and the
cops were the villains. That put us apart from everybody else.”
Cheech & Chong broke
up in 1985, but in the last decade they have started working together
again. In some ways, Chong says, it felt like they had never been away
from each other.
“Oh, it's wonderful,”
Chong enthused. “It's really like we're harvesting now. We planted the
crops. We bought all the insecticide and everything else. Now that
crop keeps growing every year, producing fruit every year. All we have
to do is go around and collect it. Collect our accolades and the
money. And we don't have to do anything. We don't have to invent
anything or try anything new. We just have to do what we used to do and
people are very happy.”
For a younger
generation, Chong may be better known for his role of Leo on the popular
long-running sitcom That 70s Show.
“When Cheech and I
broke up, I still wanted to be Cheech & Chong,” Chong said. “I didn't
want to change my persona, because that really is me. When That 70s
Show came about, they wrote the part especially for my character. I
just had to come in and put on the costume and go to work.”
just this year, to come in and go to work, was in the supporting role of
Yax in one of this year’s biggest animated films, Zootopia. Just
like That 70s Show, the opportunity happened because the
filmmakers liked his persona.
“Well, actually, they
wrote that part for me,” Chong laughed. “It's a smaller part, but they
liked my voice so much that they enlarged the part. I wasn't surprised
it was a big hit, because when I saw the screening, I laughed
uncontrollably. Like everybody else did. I just love that movie.”
Last year, Chong did
a new internet talk show called Almost Legal with Tommy Chong.
“Yeah, we did a
series of them. Now we're looking for a new home for the talk show.
It's kind of in limbo, right now. But my son and I, we are doing our
podcast on Cannabis Radio. So, we're still doing it. The thing is,
we're limited with time. We only have so much time to do certain
However, even with
all this stuff going on, Chong is ready to slow down now and reap the
benefits of a life well lived.
“I'm winding down my
career, if anything,” Chong admitted. “I think what I'm going to end up
doing is doing a lot of promotion for Chong's Choice, and doing some
marijuana lectures on the benefits and so on.”