It doesn’t take a lifetime achievement award to put Tommy Chong in a good mood. To the contrary, the 81-year-old needs little more than the promise of another day of life to put a smile on his face.
“Every day I wake up,” Chong explains, “it’s like, ‘Whoa okay, I’m still here.’”
That’s good news for organizers of this year’s Emerald Cup.
Founded in 2004 by Tim Blake, the cannabis competition now held annually each December at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds is regarded as one of the world’s premiere opportunities to put quality sungrown pot to the test. As the Cup’s popularity has increased alongside California’s evolving attitudes on legal cannabis, so has the event’s offerings, which now include live music performances, panels, a huge selection of vendors, and, as of last year, a lifetime achievement award.
Named for 2018’s inaugural recipient, the Emerald Cup’s Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award will this year go to Chong, widely recognized as one of the most public and popular proponents for cannabis, especially in the years before the law was on his side. Most notable for his comedic partnership with Cheech Marin — which produced stoner film classics like 1978’s Up in Smoke and 1981’s Nice Dreams — Chong is also an author, musician, and the namesake of the weed brand Chong’s Choice.
More than anything, Chong is an advocate for cannabis and a living historian who can recall the endless permutations of progress the plant has weathered within his own lifetime.
Reflecting on the surreal nature of going from being incarcerated for a cannabis-related offense to receiving an award at a major festival devoted to weed in the span of 16 years, Chong says the only thing that’s changed is our attitudes.
“We used to go to the Renaissance Faire,” he says. “We would never go there straight, but the thing is, if you were cool, you could smoke anywhere.”
At one such event, he recalls purchasing an especially beloved piece of paraphernalia.
“I bought one of the nicest pipes I’ve ever had there,” he says, “but it got ripped off. It was this handmade, beautiful pipe. I still miss it to this day. I watched the guy make it and he encouraged me to start making pipes. Even when weed was illegal, the culture was still always very vibrant.”
While Chong may not have capitalized on the pipemaker’s encouragement right away, he eventually did start making bongs.
In 2003, he was one of a number of individuals to be arrested as part of Operation Pipe Dreams and Operation Headhunter — two U.S. investigations targeting manufacturers and distributors of drug paraphernalia (in this case, mainly bongs). Ultimately, Chong was sentenced to serve nine months in jail, where his cellmate was none other than Jordan Belfort, the basis for Martin Scorsese’s film The Wolf of Wall Street.
Surprisingly, Chong says he doesn’t harbor much resentment over the incident.
“I’ve learned over the years that everybody’s karma is different,” he says. “So I’m not as outraged as you might think I would be. When I was in prison, I threw the I Ching and it said that I was there for a reason.”
Nowadays, Chong says his form of activism is to be vocal about what happened to him at every possible opportunity.
“You can’t be a martyr for everybody,” he says. “My way of fighting unjust incarceration is that no matter where I am — at a dinner party with Republicans or very wealthy people, for example — I always mention the fact that I was in prison. I bring it up all the time. It’s a badge of honor for me, and more importantly, it creates a conversation. From that conversation, I usually learn that everybody at the table has had experiences with people that are incarcerated. The only thing is they don’t talk about it.”
At present, Chong is more focused on what’s to come. To that end, he says he’s looking forward to meeting with friends and fans at the Emerald Cup, to performing what may be his final run of shows with Cheech Marin in 2020, and to continue serving as a taste tester for the products being made by Chong’s Choice.
Given his legacy, no one would blame the beloved comedian for wanting to retire. However, for all Chong has already achieved in his lifetime, he’s not quite ready to call it a career just yet.
“You don’t want to kill yourself having fun,” he says, “but who knows what the future brings? I’ll tell you one thing: it will always involve marijuana, because that seems to be my calling in life.”
The Emerald Cup, Saturday, Dec. 14 and Sunday, Dec. 15. Sonoma County Fairgrounds, Santa Rosa. $155-$549, theemeraldcup.com. Ages 21+.