Saturday, December 20, 2008

Tommy Chong: The Comedian as Warrior

Not Just A Comedian Anymore: The ‘Unanticipated Warrior’ Tommy Chong

October, 2008

By Norm Kent
I double dare you to tell me that when you hear the names ‘Cheech and Chong’ you don’t smile, chuckle and recall a funny, hazy moment in your life.

Between 1972 and 1985, the comedy team released nine albums, starred in eight films, and won a Grammy award. They became the Dynamic Duo of Dope, and some of their films, like ‘Nice Dreams’ and ‘Up in Smoke’ became celebrated classics.

Tommy and Cheech would often be pressed to talk about their ‘message.’ They would reply simply: “All we can do is be funny and try to make people laugh.” In a lifetime far away, that was their modest and fulfilling goal. That, however, was before a fully armed Department of Justice swat team raided Tommy Chong’s comfortable suburban California home in February of 2003.

Armed with a search warrant, you would think these machine gun toting FBI agents were expecting to find 9-11 terrorists. You would think Tommy was holding hostages. Not close. The feds found Tommy, his wife, his elderly dog and some pot. They found a comedian whose entrepreneurial bent enabled him to become the CEO of business enterprise which sold beautiful and designer glass pipes over the Internet.

Unfortunately, ‘Nice Dreams Enterprises’ was about to become Tommy Chong’s nightmare.

In a different world, maybe Tommy would have been given an award for glass artistry. But in the mind of President George Bush, Tommy Chong was aiding and abetting a culture of ‘terrorists’ who glamorized pot. Said the Chief Assistant United States Attorney from the Western District of Pennsylvania, who would personally handle Tommy Chong’s prosecution, and see him to prison: “The people who sell the accessories are just as bad as those growing the plant.”

On that date, Tommy Chong went from telling jokes and producing glass pipes to starring in a real life documentary which exposes just how transcendentally meaningless the drug war against our citizens is. Like the young man who stood alone before a cannon twenty years ago in Tiananmen Square, Tommy Chong has become the unanticipated warrior whose life experience has exposed the abject foolishness of our government’s drug war.

Tommy Chong has gone from living off the culture of pot to going to prison because of it. He has become the person he joked about. But he never asked to be a hero. He just sought to be funny, to do for pot what Red Skelton used to do for booze. Somewhere along the way someone forgot to tell the feds that Marcus Welby was never really a doctor and Tommy Chong was never really a stoner. Well, maybe a little. But it was not his whole life.

Tommy Chong was a comedic writer, a guitarist, a filmmaker, a humorist, a businessman, and an entertainer. He trivialized law enforcement. He made stoners laughable and humorous. He mimicked those panicked moments when we would stash the stash, or swallow a roach. He made us laugh about being high even when we were not high. He made funny movies and comic albums. Along the way, he became a counter culture hero, and for everyone who ever bogarted a joint, there is a Cheech and Chong moment stored in your memory bank.

Says Tommy today: “I turn 70 this year. And I still smoke pot about as regular as I want to.”

One of Tom’s more unique honors was being given a “Lifetime Achievement Award” at the Cannabis Cup ceremonies in Amsterdam. His tour still involves comedy of course, but in his own words, Tommy gives talks “on how Pot can save the Planet. My life is full of love and adventure thanks to the magical herb.”

Following a path many of us tracked, Tommy grew up, has grown older, got married, got divorced, got married, raised a family, and started a successful business. ‘Nice Dream Enterprises’ sold bongs over the ‘Net. Today, any convenience stores on street corners from San Francisco in California to Saint Petersburg in Florida carry pipes and papers and smoking agents. They are not getting busted and they are not going to jail.

But in 2003, while our nation was still removing bodies from the World Trade Center, 55 defendants got popped for bong-selling on the ‘Net. It was a nationwide operation heralded in a press conference by the Attorney General of the United States. Tommy Chong was the Potboy Centerfold, targeted as the number one offender, with a government hell-bent on sending a message which would make Tommy the example to be burnt at the stake.

After 9-11, selling glass pipes on the Internet became a low priority for the federal government. The law was pretty much ignored. Out of all those eventually charged and found guilty, one man of course, would have to wind up with a sentence longer than any other. That man would be a man in his sixties with no criminal record, a father, a parent, and entrepreneur. That man would be one Tommy Chong, who would go to Taft Prison in California for nine months between 2005 and 2006.

“I tried to look at it as going on location for nine months,” Tommy says in a newly released documentary, A/K/A Tommy Chong. It’s playing now on Showtime, and it is a compelling, commanding feature, produced by Blue Chief Entertainment. Even the title has a double entendre: the federal indictment including the charges which would send Tommy to prison, reads United States of America vs. Thomas B. Kin Chong A/K/A Tommy Chong.

The Josh Gilbert film illustratively reveals the way the government improperly solicited and perhaps unlawfully entrapped ‘Nice Dream Enterprises.’ The revealing evidentiary tapes show that the company originally sought NOT to ship glass pipes into the Western Pennsylvania jurisdiction where a phony paraphernalia store run by feds was pleading for product. But the propositions from the undercovers kept on coming, and the corporation headed by Tommy Chong made a bad call. Then came the feds.

As the film shows, Tommy had little to do with the day to day operations of the company. He was, his son Paris says, too busy “dreaming about creating a million dollar bong with gold and diamonds.” But the indictment named Tommy, and in exchange for the government not adding as co-defendants his wife and son, who were instrumental in the operation of the company, Tommy bit the bullet and took the fall.

To secure a lenient plea deal and possible sentence reduction means your attorney has to plead you guilty swiftly. This sentencing guideline enables you to get credit for ‘early acceptance of responsibility.’ It means you have to waive your right to contest the indictment, file defensive motions, and allege such issues as unlawful entrapment. As his attorneys in the film point out, and as Tommy himself found out, your options are severely limited.

The Prince of Dope Films became the pot prisoner he used to joke about. In the film, drug reformers Ethan Nadelman and Eric Schlosser acknowledge as much: “He convinced the government he was the guy he played in the movies.” And Andy Griffith was really a Sheriff.

In 2008, as he tours North America with Cheech Marin for the first time in 25 years, Tommy recognizes of our government: “They made me a martyr.” How true. Within months of his release, Tommy was on the Tonite Show with Jay Leno. “Too bad he wasn’t a conservative radio talk show host,” Leno would remark in his monologue: “he would be in rehab instead of jail.”

On Bill Maher’s weekly television show, Maher noted with irony that Tommy’s federal sentencing date was on September 11: “Osama may still be running free in caves, but our country will be much safer with a 65 year old Tommy Chong in a prison.”

Now free of prison, but forever an adjudicated felon, Tommy says: “I made a living for thirty years talking about a culture. Today, I stand up for it.” He is truly not just a comedian anymore.

Joshua Gilbert produced, wrote, and directed the film. He had the ingenuity and foresight to create a film which followed Tommy from his indictment to his release from prison. We see Tommy entertaining on stage before his incarceration, and then doing a sobering interview while doing his time. In a lighter moment, he jokes with his new found friends, all inmates at a federal prison. Few actors have better worked the ‘method’ system. Tommy’s was real.

In a later scene, we see Tommy leaving the gates of this deserted and lonely steel prison, walking out of the federal penitentiary on his release date, his wife waiting to meet him. Driving home along an isolated road, Tommy sees a goat entangled in a wire cage. He frees him. “It feels good to be free,” Tommy says. He then arrives home, bends down, and kisses the concrete steps leading up to his house.

The film’s insight reveals that the end of a sentence for a prisoner can also be the beginning of a new one. As a felon, you have to register and report to police stations, half way houses, and you can be subject to post-custodial supervision and random drug testing. The failure to meet these conditions can cause your return to prison. After spending nine months in jail, Tommy had to go to one of those half way houses and endure nine more months of probation. We forget what that can do to the human spirit.

“Once you have been jailed, you are never really free again,” Tommy says. “You no longer feel invincible. You have been humbled. You know what the meaning of ‘doing time’ means.”

In life, sometimes you are called upon to stand naked in front of the cannon, as that young man in Tiananmen Square did years ago. Sometimes, you are called upon to just be funny.

The new tour of Cheech and Chong is taking them to cities in America and Canada. As she has since 1996, Tommy’s wife Shelby opens the show. An entertainer in her own right, she is the prelude for the duo that has now been booked for over 50 dates in 50 cities between now and March of 2009.

One of those dates, on March 07, 2009, is not many miles from the very county in Pennsylvania where Tommy’s bongs arrived in a shipment, in 2002, which would lead to his arrest, prosecution, and incarceration. If he has not already, I suspect on that stage and in that forum, Tommy may find true vindication.

Tommy is not alone turning 70 this year. So are many members of his audience. But the crowds laugh and cry, stare and abide by the Dukes of Dope, now in the autumn of their lives. Maybe they go home to lattes instead of lines, grandkids instead of ganja, but Cheech and Chong are one with the crowd, no more so then the closing moments of the performance, when all join in a joyful, playful, sing-along rendition of ‘Up in Smoke.’

“And we close our show,” says Cheech in a Rolling Stone interview, “with ‘Kumbaya.’ It’s for world peace. It’s for the kids. It’s for the future.”

“I am inspired,” Tommy says now, “not just to tell jokes, but to send a message. My arrest, my sentence is a badge of honor..”

A published writer on issues related to Marijuana and law reform, Norm Kent ( is a Fort Lauderdale criminal defense attorney who serves on the Board of Directors of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. His website can be accessed at

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