Tommy Chong goes to jail

On September 11, 2003, comedian Tommy Chong was sentenced to nine months in prison, a fine of $20,000, and the forfeiture of about $120,000 in assets. He also had to give up his internet domain name of
Chong, best known as half of the famed pot-comedy duo Cheech and Chong, was the founder of a business called Nice Dreams, which manufactured and sold bongs under the name Chong Glass. The business was operated by Chong’s son, Paris.

In May 2003, Chong plead guilty to charges of “conspiring to distribute drug paraphernalia,” after a sting operation in which federal agents in Pittsburgh ordered his bongs over the Internet, thus ensuring that the items were sent across state lines.

Undercover cops also bought two of Chong’s bongs at a store in Texas. They received Chong’s autograph on the bongs, and got a t-shirt depicting Chong smoking from one.

Chong’s bust was part of a larger anti-bong police effort called Operation Pipe Dreams, which involved over 2,000 federal, state and local law enforcement officers. The operation culminated on February 24, 2003, with simultaneous raids against multiple paraphernalia retailers, distributors and manufacturers, including Chong (CC#43, Bong shops under attack!).

Most of these raids against pipe-selling shops and businesses, which had operated openly for years, involved SWAT teams with semiautomatic rifles drawn and helicopter units as backup. The unhappy date is now known as “2/24” among the glass-blowing culture. The raids led to the seizure of tons of pipes and bongs, and left hundreds of people unemployed. 22 people from a variety of pipeselling businesses have been convicted so far, with about 40 still under indictment. Chong was the first of the Operation Pipe Dreams defendants to plead guilty, and also the first to receive jail time. Chong has launched an appeal, but only against the length of his sentence, not his conviction. As a result, he remains behind bars as his appeal is being heard.

Punishing an icon

Tommy Chong’s lawyers claimed that he was being persecuted because of his pot-friendly media persona. “They are really prosecuting him for who he is,” said lawyer Richard Hirsch. “It was a very selective prosecution.”

“He’s being sentenced for making jokes,” added Chong’s wife, Shelby, who had been working as his comedic partner on a nationwide tour when the bust took place.

Prosecuting attorney Mary McKeen Houghton essentially admitted that Chong was targeted because he was a famous stoner. “He used his public image to promote this crime,” she told the media, adding that “we prosecute people for the deterrent effect.” During the trial, Houghton brought up Chong’s films, claiming they “trivialized drug use,” and bemoaned the fact that “these films will be with us forever and children will rent these films forever.” After pleading guilty, Chong had joked with reporters about putting the case into the plot of a reunion film he was planning with Cheech Marin. Prosecutor Houghton pounced on Chong’s comment, telling Judge Arthur Schwab that Chong was making light of the case and seeking to exploit it for personal profit. Chong stopped talking to reporters after that.


Cheech and Chong (1971)
Big Bambu (1972)
Los Cochinos (1973)
Cheech and Chong’s Wedding Album (1974)
Sleeping Beauty (1976)
Up in Smoke Soundtrack (1978)
Let’s Make a New Dope Deal (1980)
Cheech and Chong’s Greatest Hit (1981)
Cheech and Chong Anthology (2002)

First toke

Certainly it is true that Tommy Chong rivals Bob Marley as the world’s most well-known cannabis icon. From his earliest beginnings, Chong’s life and career have been intertwined with marijuana.

Chong was born in 1938, in Edmonton, Alberta. He grew up in Dogpatch, a small town outside of Calgary. His father was Chinese and his mother Scotch-Irish, which accounts for his uniquely multicultural look.

Chong was given his first guitar at age 11, and started playing country and western music. He switched to rhythm and blues a few years later, but didn’t take his first toke until the age of 17, when a Chinese bass player handed him a joint.

“No one knew what pot was,” said Chong in an interview with the Edmonton Sun in May 2003. “I kept that one joint. It lasted me a long time. I’d take a few tokes and put it out. It really changed my life. I quit school right away and decided I wanted to be a blues musician.”

Chong began playing music professionally, starting up Western Canada’s first R&B band, the Shades. But their gigs were too rowdy for the town of Calgary, and after the Mayor gave them a formal request to leave town, Chong and the Shades relocated to Vancouver.

Chong bought his own place, a bistro called the Elegant Parlour, where he also played guitar for the house band, Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers.

The Vancouvers were signed by Motown Records in 1965. Their single hit, Does Your Mama Know About Me, was cowritten by Chong, and has since been recorded by the Jackson Five and others.

A few years later, Chong’s music career took a turn into comedy.

While on tour, he saw cutting-edge comedy teams like Chicago’s Second City, and was inspired to leave music. He started a new career, converted his brother’s failing Vancouver bar into a comedy house.

“It was a topless joint and I didn’t have the heart to fire the strippers,” said Chong, “so when I turned the show into a comedy troupe known as ‘City Works,’ I put the girls in the skits. We had the only topless improvisational theatre in Canada.”


Up in Smoke (1978)
Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie (1980)
Nice Dreams (1981)
Things Are Tough All Over (1982)
Still Smokin’ (1983)
Corsican Brothers (1984)
Get Out of My Room (1987)
Far Out Man (1989)

Joint history

Many aspiring young comics came to try their luck working at Chong’s new comedy club. One of these was Richard “Cheech” Marin, to whom Chong gave a job performing for $60 a week. Two years later City Works shut down, but Chong and Marin went on the road together, ending up in California, where they started incorporating more marijuana humor into their act.

They were soon spotted by music industry magnate Lou Adler, and signed to a contract. They released a pot-laden comedy album each year between 1971 and 1974. The first two albums went gold, and all four were immensely popular. The duo also took their stoner act onto the concert circuit, touring for four years before releasing their first movie, Up in Smoke, in 1978.

The movie was major hit, and saw Cheech and Chong merchandised onto everything from lighters to lunch boxes. They followed it up with Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie in 1980, then Nice Dreams, Things Are Tough All Over, and Still Smokin’ in each subsequent year. All four of these latter films were directed by Tommy Chong, and they solidified the pair’s status as the world’s most recognizable celluloid stoners.

Cheech and Chong split up in the late 80’s, with Cheech Marin working to distance himself from his earlier stoner incarnation. Marin got a role in the TV cop series Nash Bridges, playing Don Johnson’s partner from 1996 to 2001. Chong had a guest role in a 1997 episode, but says that he and Marin didn’t stay in touch.

In 1998 Chong took on the role of Leo, the stoned photo-shop owner on That 70’s Show. Clearly the most pot-friendly show in prime-time, That 70’s Show features characters sitting in a toking circle at the end of many episodes, sharing stoned thoughts and conversation. Actual toking is not shown, but the characters are shown against a smoky background and are clearly meant to be using pot.

Several of That 70’s Show’s plot lines have revolved around marijuana, including the parents accidentally eating pot brownies, and one character taking the rap for another’s pot possession. Use of the herb is generally shown as harmless and fun.

Yet during a January 2003 interview on Pot-TV, Chong explained that “nobody on That 70’s Show smokes pot. None of the cast gets high, the only people that smoke are the crew.”

However, Leo’s character does not appear in the 2003-04 season, and his lawyers explained to Judge Schwab that it was because of the bong-selling charges against him that Chong’s character was dropped from the show.

In 2003, Chong released Best Buds, a film which he wrote, codirected and starred in. It’s about a pot-advocate comedian who loses his wife to a Latin dance instructor, and also starred Chong’s real-life wife and children. However, other of Chong’s planned projects have also been put on hold. Chong had just finished writing his autobiography, which is to be published by HarperCollins.

It was originally due in September, but the release date has now been indefinitely delayed.

Most tragically for Cheech and Chong fans, Chong’s bust came as he had finally reunited with Cheech; the duo had been in pre-production on a new film, written by Chong’s daughter Rae Dawn, tentatively titled Cheech and Chong Get Blunt.

(What’s the real reason that prosecutors in Pittsburgh care about bong sellers in California?
It’s because their local police get to keep 80% of the money and assets seized.
So most of the fines and cash forfeited by Chong, and other pipe merchants,
will end up buying cars and weapons for Pittsburgh cops.)

Marijuana martyr?

In going through the humiliating experience of being raided, arrested, charged and tried, Chong has both gained and lost in the eyes of some members of the cannabis community.

Some observers believe that Chong should have nobly fought the charges instead of just pleading guilty. Others see him as a martyr, a symbol of the arbitrary and harsh drug war.

Since Chong’s bong business was family-owned, prosecutors had threatened to charge his wife Shelby, and his son Paris, if Chong didn’t plead guilty.

In court, Chong went so far as to apologize to his family, and Judge Schwab, for his pot-laden lifestyle. “I got carried away with my character,” said Chong. “I did become that character for a while, but not anymore.”

Chong even told the judge that he once had “a drug problem with marijuana,” but that he no longer smokes cannabis, saying he beat it by redirecting his energy to salsa dancing. “It’s a Latin American dance that’s awesome,” Chong told the judge, right before he was sentenced to nine months in jail.

Chong’s lawyers had also offered their client up for “anti-drug” commercials or other public service if it would help to reduce his sentence. But the judge didn’t agree to any such deals, and prosecutor Houghton pointed out that a pound of pot had been found at Chong’s home during the pipe raid.

An article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, written shortly after Chong’s conviction, decried Chong’s obviously false claims to have changed his toking ways. The columnist echoed the sentiments of many in the pot community, writing that, “Tommy Chong, at least as we know him, died on the floor of Courtroom 3 Thursday morning. What exited was a beaten old man, forced to renounce himself to save the little bit that was left after the party ended.”

Yet oddly enough, Judge Schwab’s refusal to accept Chong’s offer will help Chong to retain his credibility, and save the youth of America from the frightening spectacle of a beaten Tommy Chong telling them to “Just Say No.” Instead, the story of Tommy Chong has become more poignant, and his earlier comedies are now cast in a different, more meaningful light. Plus, Chong has received a tremendous amount of media coverage, which can only help sales of any new projects he undertakes.

In media interviews during January 2002, while promoting his cross-country comedy tour with his wife Shelby, Chong had unabashedly told reporters “I am really a pothead.” It seems unlikely that he will be willing and able to make such statements again soon ? once he is released in May 2004, Chong will face two years probation and drug testing.

Yet at the same time, Chong has always admitted to taking periodic breaks from cannabis. “I have to go on sabbaticals all the time,” said Chong. “I can’t smoke it all the time. And I don’t ? never have.”

So perhaps this will be just another pot sabbatical for him, clearly the longest yet. But no matter what the sentence, no matter how long he is kept from speaking out or toking up, Tommy Chong will always be toking up on some flickering screens around the world, while stoners giggle at his antics and toke in unison.

? You can write to Tommy Chong in prison: Thomas Kin Chong, 07798-068, Taft CI, 1500 Cadet Road, Taft, CA 93268