It was in a low-rent town in flyover country, playing a gig in front of a crowd of squares and straights in the Ronald Reagan '80s — the dark days of Just Say No, compulsory D.A.R.E. classes for children, and the crack-cocaine epidemic, all the things that led to our country's current drug-fueled incarceration crisis — when Tommy Chong really blew his audience's minds.
Chong and his partner Cheech Marin had been plying their brand of stoner humor for almost two decades, their comedy LPs and films on the Hi-Fis and Betamaxes of cannabis users around the world. (And the pair would separate soon after, when Marin tried to make a break from the THC-fueled typecast and go for a straight-laced acting career.) But on this night and in this town — some nameless “right-wing Christian” place Chong cannot recall — the still-bearded longhairs were not playing to their audience. Still, the crewcuts paid to see these freaks, leftovers from the '60s, in action. And they were curious.
“I remember some of them asking us about 'this pot thing,'” Chong recalls via telephone from his home in Pacific Palisades. “And I said, 'What if we're right?'”
“Their response was very, 'Ha, ha, ha, you know it'll never happen.' But we turned out to be right.”
So when did it stop being an act? When did the routine — the lazy speech, the forgetfulness, all the staples that have become etched in rock as stoner archetypes — stop being a joke?
“It never did,” he says. “If it wasn't for marijuana, I wouldn't be here today.”
Now 77, Tommy Chong has been smoking marijuana for 60 years, since he was a 17-year-old high school dropout in (as he says) “Calgary, Alberta, Canada.” In that time, he has seen the plant go from ignored to accepted to outlawed, all the way back to almost normal again.
Back in the 1950s, “it was basically legal,” he says, “because nobody knew what it was. You could smoke it anywhere.” But times changed — oh, did they. His parents had a boarder who dealt dime bags. He was busted, and the cops came by the house and “jacked up” Chong's father, a military vet and Chinese immigrant who had memories of marijuana being used as a sacred healing herb in his native country. In Vancouver, where Chong opened up a nightclub, narcs would “sit outside and try to bust us if we were smoking.”
Somehow, instead of getting mad, Chong found it amusing. Where activists or rebels might have felt righteous or outraged, he marveled at the absurdity of it all.
There's a seminal scene early in Cheech and Chong's first film, Up in Smoke, when a cop pulls the pair over. (Or, rather, they're parked on the median and a cop walks up to them, and Cheech is supposed to be deliriously high on acid — but, details.)
“We're getting busted by the cops, and Cheech can't stop laughing at him,” Chong says. “That's what we basically did with the law: laughed in its face. And we still do.”
These days, it's hard to argue about who was right. Being known as the stoner's stoner revived Chong's stalled acting career, when he was granted a recurring cameo role on the slyly cannabis-friendly That '70s Show in the 2000s. But then the reputation almost killed him.
In the early 2000s, during the also-dark days of George W. Bush — whose Justice Department raided medical marijuana providers in California for having as few as six cannabis plants — Chong was one of several dozen sellers of paraphernalia to get busted in “Operation Pipe Dreams,” when a pair of federal agents in Pittsburgh successfully ordered one of his bongs over the internet. (Similar stings reportedly involved thousands of law enforcement agents nationwide.) During his trial, Chong's films were used as evidence against him, as were the half-serious interviews he gave to the media. As the federal prosecutor huffed, “these films will be with us forever and children will rent these films forever.”
Chong pleaded guilty and was sentenced to prison and probation — which he believes is what led to his 2012 cancer diagnosis. “I had to quit smoking pot for three years,” he says. He claims he had problems quitting, but with his system low in THC — which a Spanish study suggests shrinks or kills tumors — he was diagnosed with low-level prostate cancer that he had nonetheless “had for a long time.” After getting through that, another rectal cancer diagnosis followed last year. He has treated his cancer, he says, by smoking as much marijuana as possible.
It seems to be working. These days, Chong is keeping busy in business. He has a brand of cannabis called “Chong's Choice,” a heavily marketable seal of approval he grants to strains that meet his standards. He doesn't have an opinion on the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, the Sean Parker-funded legalization effort vying for the November ballot, but believes that if legalization goes before California voters, it will win — and he is adamantly behind Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' bid for president.
As for the full turnaround for marijuana in his lifetime? Chong says it's happening. “If Obama's cool, he'll do it this year,” he says. “If he's not cool, the next guy will do it.”
“And that's a grin I can't get off my face,” he says. “That's on there permanently.”
Tommy Chong will appear at the International Cannabis Business Conference at (when else?) 4:20 p.m. on Saturday, Feb 13. For tickets and information, visit internationalcbc.com.