Getting America Stoned Again
by Jay S. Jacobs
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 incredible. 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 money.”
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 and Alaska?
“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 everywhere.”
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, right?”
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.”
Another opportunity, 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 things.”
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.”
Copyright ©2016 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: July 22, 2016.
Photos ©2016. Courtesy of AGPR. All rights reserved.