A Drug War Carol
TOMMY CHONG'S NEW JOINT
by Dean Kuipers
"Serving nine months in federal prison for putting his face on a bong,
one of America's most beloved comics contemplates the war on
stoners, thought crime and reuniting with Cheech."
The joke, of course, is that this is Sgt. Stadanko's revenge. The
arch-nemesis of every Cheech & Chong film, actor Stacey Keach seemed
like he'd play the greasy, bumbling narc forever, but now U.S.
Attorney General and religious jihadist John Ashcroft has taken over
the role, and he's not playing it for laughs.
Sitting in the visitation area inside Taft Correctional Institution,
a privately run federal prison plunked in the Iraq-like oilfields of
California's Central Valley, Tommy Chong found out the hard way that
Ashcroft's Department of Justice is now busting thoughtcrime. The
65-year-old writer and director of some of America's most beloved
comedies is astonished to find that his movies, in part, earned him
nine months in the federal pen.
"They came after me because of the movies, Up in Smoke, Cheech &
Chong, and because of my act since 1968," says Chong. "They took my
character to be my real persona."
Is that your real persona? I have to ask.
"No," Chong chuckles. "It's a character. It's like the Furry Freak
Bros. Cheech & Chong are like comic-strip characters. Everybody knows
that the real Cheech isn't the Cheech from Up in Smoke, and the real
Tommy Chong isn't the Tommy Chong from the 'Hey man' dude.
"But I was selling bongs with my picture on 'em. And they said,
'Well, this is Tommy Chong.' But I was like Christopher Reeve doing a
Superman promotion. [U.S. Attorneys] never saw it that way. And they
wanted to make an example of me. Really, what they wanted to do was
to shut down the whole culture."
Clearly, Chong's playing both sides. He's not the headbanded,
acid-guitar-wielding ur-stoner from the movies, but he is sometimes
indistinguishable from that character, and he has embraced that image
in public. Just like a lot of other performers. Arnold
Schwarzenegger, for example, used quotes from his ultra-violent
Terminator movies, like "Hasta la vista, baby," when campaigning for
governor. Chong was right to assume that this was not a crime.
Until now. The current U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), unlike any
in the last 30 years, has changed the rules. Since 9/11, the White
House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) has run ads
equating marijuana use with supporting terrorism, and the DOJ has
taken that outrageous pronouncement to the next level, equating
glassware sales with drug dealing.
On Feb. 24, federal agents launched two simultaneous national sweeps
for purveyors of drug paraphernalia, Operation Pipe Dreams out of the
U.S. Attorney's office in western Pennsylvania, and Operation
Headhunter out of the Northern District of Iowa. Under an apparently
little-used 1980s federal law, they scooped up umpteen thousand
bongs, pipes, roach clips and even rolling papers from mail-order and
Internet suppliers whose shipments crossed state lines. One of those
was the Gardena, Calif., business run by Chong's son Paris, called
Nice Dreams Enterprises, doing business as Tommy Chong Glass.
Fifty-five individuals and companies were busted across the country
that day. A few others got prison time. The one who got the longest
sentence was Tommy Chong. He reported to prison on Oct. 8, and he'll
be there until July 2004. A judge recently rejected requests for home
detention or early release.
"Tommy's the only one that's gotten a federal sentence," says Allen
St. Pierre, spokesperson for the National Organization to Reform
Marijuana Laws, or NORML. "He had no prior arrests. He was no flight
risk. He is a cultural icon and a taxpayer, probably higher than most
of us. And certainly did not fit the basic criteria of who should go
to jail for paraphernalia."
But there's one criterion he fit just too neatly. Every burnout in
America would hear about it and get scared.
"[Chong] wasn't the biggest supplier. He was a relatively new player.
But he had the ability to market products like no other," said U.S.
Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan at Chong's sentencing.
"They went after Tommy Chong because he was just what they needed,"
says St. Pierre. "If you have to think of one individual that would
represent the government's efforts to enforce prohibition, or a
representative of the negative stereotype, then, out of a country of
almost 300 million Americans, there's really only about three or four
people who fit that bill: Willie Nelson, Woody Harrelson and Tommy
Dave's not here, man
If only life really were like the movies. Then Chong and some of the
inmates would fashion several pairs of gargantuan rave pants out of
sweetleaf and, during a prison foam party featuring a jail appearance
by, say, Cypress Hill's DJ Muggs, escape in a paisley Beetle full of
girls in fuzzy bikini tops, dank smoke pouring out all four windows.
Leaving Stadanko blissed-out in the center of the cafeteria dance
floor, having found his new high.
Instead, Chong's new reality is a lot more like some crappy, badly
soundtracked episode of Cops.
The investigation into Nice Dreams Enterprises was months in the
making, as agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA),
posing as a head shop in Beaver Falls, Penn., just northwest of
Pittsburgh, tried to order glassware from Nice Dreams.
"The reason they didn't indict me until later is because our company
wouldn't send the order to Pennsylvania," says Chong. The company was
wary of the U.S. Attorney's office in the area, which is one of the
country's most conservative. "They faked like they were a head shop,
saying, 'C'mon, man, your stuff's selling so great, we need $6,000
worth.' I heard the tape where they [Nice Dreams] turned 'em down.'
But, eventually, the order was filled. The federal paraphernalia law
makes it illegal to transport across state lines any device for the
use of illicit drugs. Such laws were common at the state and
municipal level in the 1980s, but a 1994 U.S. Supreme Court ruling
made a somewhat ambiguous federal law available to DOJ prosecutors.
"The decision was called 'Iowa vs. Poster-N-Things,'" says NORML's
St. Pierre. "It basically boils down to this. What would a reasonable
person think the product is going to be used for? If you're a
prosecutor, and you're gonna bring charges on paraphernalia, you
would want to bring forward all of the cultural affectations that the
products in question are being sold in."
Which means that bongs for sale in a store might not be protected by
California law, which requires they be clearly marked "For Tobacco
Use Only." According to the Supreme Court, if there are High Times
magazines also for sale, stickers and T-shirts with pot leaves on
them, even NORML pamphlets on the countertop, this might indicate
that the devices are to be used with marijuana.
Nice Dreams, being an interstate glassware seller by mail and
Internet, was guilty by association with its own products. The
company sold Tommy Chong urinalysis kits to test for THC, the
psychoactive ingredient in pot, a Tommy Chong Get Clean shampoo and
Tommy Chong Urine Luck, a urine-sample additive that would guarantee
a clean test for marijuana. Plus, of course, stuff with pot leaves
and Tommy's face on it. Which was taken as evidence that this stuff
was meant for The Chronic.
"So you get that before a jury of 12 reasonable people," adds St.
Pierre, "and the reasonable person, more often than not, says, 'No, I
think that that bong with the big marijuana leaf on it, sold in that
place with all these other things around it, with drug testing kits
and stuff, that was probably not for tobacco.'"
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary McKeen Houghton pointed out at the trial
that almost a pound of marijuana was seized at Chong's house-but he
was never prosecuted for possession. They had a bigger target in
mind. The glassware itself-and, strangely, only glass bongs and pipes
were seized, not plastic, bamboo or any other thing-has now been
criminalized. It's not about what consumers do with it; it's what
they might do with it. That is what's known as a thoughtcrime, a
crime that never actually occurs.
As in George Orwell's book 1984, thoughtcrime has now become
dangerous. On Feb 24, agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement
Administration (DEA) kicked at the door of Tommy Chong's home at 5:30
a.m., automatic weapons drawn, red laser sights flashing down the
darkened halls. Chong and his wife, Shelby, who is also a comedian,
"Oh, it was a full-on raid," says Chong. "Helicopters, them bangin'
on the door. They come in with loaded automatic weapons, flak
jackets, helmets, visors, about 20 agents. They bust in the house.
They took all my cash, took out my computers, and they took all the
glass bongs they could find."
Down in Gardena at the Nice Dreams plant, a similar raid took place,
though it was more civilized. Agents simply walked in and carted away
all the glassware, computers and business records.
"I thought it was a joke," Chong says. "I thought they had the wrong
house. You hear about these guys coming to the wrong house all the
time. And then when I found out about the bongs, I was really mad,
because my son Paris had just started to make money with the company.
I was just outraged."
Sister Mary Elephant
Mary Beth Buchanan, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of
Pennsylvania, is also playing both sides of Chong's publicity. On the
one hand, she hopes bong dealers get the message, because if they
don't, she says, "We'll charge those people, too." On the other,
however, she denies that Chong was targeted.
"I think that it's unfortunate that so much attention has been drawn
to this problem because of Tommy Chong," she says, talking by phone
from her office in Pittsburgh. "This problem is so much bigger than
him. He is just one defendant, like all the others who have
acknowledged their responsibility and their criminal conduct."
That seems unlikely, considering Chong's celebrity. After all, the
1978 Cheech & Chong film, Up in Smoke, is one of Warner Bros.'
highest-grossing films. And he recently had a recurring part on TV's
That '70s Show.
"What this case should stand for is that it doesn't matter who you
are," counters Buchanan. "It doesn't matter if you're famous or if
you're a comedian or if people like you; if you violate the law,
you're going to have to pay the consequences."
To be fair, the investigation didn't begin with Chong. It began with
the 1990s investigation of Akhil Kumar Mishra and his wife,
Rajeshwari, who ran two headshops in downtown Pittsburgh. Evidently,
a local drug dealer was documented buying "cutting agents"-powders
used to dilute granular drugs like cocaine or heroin-and packaging
materials from their store. In 2000, the Mishras were sentenced to 24
months for paraphernalia and conspiracy.
Piqued by the ubiquity of pipes and bongs available nationwide,
Buchanan then turned her attention to the Internet and mail-order
providers who supplied the Mishras. Chong's company, she says, was
only one on the list. During the prosecution, the government seized
domain names, so ChongGlass.com disappeared. "We've essentially
eliminated all of the distributors of this product nationwide," she
boasts. Internet distribution has become a particular interest of
hers; Buchanan is also behind unprecedented federal charges recently
brought against Van Nuys, Calif., porn distributors Extreme
And as for Tommy's sentence being longer than any of the other 55
individuals and entities popped on Feb. 24, Buchanan says that
happened precisely because Chong was so cooperative.
"It's inaccurate for him to state that he was singled out," she says,
"because what's different about the Chong case [is] that his charges
were by 'information'-which means that the matter wasn't presented to
a grand jury. Thomas Chong waived indictment to the grand jury and
pleaded guilty to the charges. So he came forward and admitted his
So much for being a nice guy. Even Chong now admits it was a mistake
to plead guilty.
"They really ambushed me," says Chong. "Had I known that I was gonna
get jail time, I would have fought it.
"The DEA agent that busted me said, 'We don't want your son or your
wife, although we could indict them, too. But if you just give
yourself up, don't make it a political or a publicity thing, then
nothing will happen to you,'" Chong adds. "And the last thing that he
said to me was, 'You don't want to be martyr.'"
Martyrdom, however, was nearly impossible to avoid considering the
current political climate. On the day of the arrest, Ashcroft held a
press conference in Washington D.C. and applauded efforts to scrub
the dirty Internet, saying, "The illegal drug paraphernalia industry
has invaded the homes of families across the country without their
John Walters, drug czar and head of the ONDCP, author of the deadly
"shoot first" policy in Peru that killed a missionary flying a small
plane in 2001, said, "We will act decisively to protect our young
people from the harms of illegal drugs."
John Brown, acting administrator of the DEA, summed it all up,
noting, "People selling drug paraphernalia are in essence no
different than drug dealers."
And Buchanan, for her part, endorses the ONDCP's contention, much
touted in its TV ad campaign, that even domestic weed dealers fund
Using that kind of language to describe Chong caused an instant
disconnect. It's tough to accept the idea that Chong, writer of freak
manifestos like "Earache My Eye," funny-man father whose five
children, including Rae Dawn Chong, are now also Hollywood icons, is
a terrorist. Or a home-invading drug dealer.
"I've felt honored to be in the same position that Nelson Mandela was
in, or Martin Luther King's been in, or even Lenny Bruce," says Chong
in a bit of extension. "Like they said, they're making an example of
me. Now, the only thing is, they're going to have to live with
example that they made."
Pedro and Man
"I never thought [our act] was political," says Richard "Cheech"
Marin, who played the sex-crazed Mexican hustler who was the foil to
Chong's hulking huffer in the duo, talking by phone from San
Francisco. "I thought it was social. It just reflected what was going
on in the society without any philosophy behind it. [He chuckles.] We
always said that we were middle-of-the-road dopers. We were the norm.
And that turned out to be true."
Marin points out that he and Chong have been through conservative
administrations before and emerged unscathed. "I mean, it's not that
the U.S. government has not had really right-wing guys in power. J.
Edgar Hoover was in power for so long. It's just that we got 'em now.
We're living in the same as the Nixon era. It just resurfaces, like
The duo split in 1984 when Marin left the stoner character behind to
reinvent himself as a regular on Nash Bridges and countless movie
roles. Now, however, Marin says their audience is bigger than ever.
The two are currently writing a new Cheech & Chong movie,
re-energized by an attack that Marin feels targets him, too.
"They didn't bust Tommy, they busted his image," he says.
And you're part of that image.
"Yeah, I am a part of that image. So that's what they're doing to us.
But if they try to stop us from doing anything, they'll have a real
big fight on their hands, you know?"
In the Taft prison, the big fight has already begun. It goes without
saying that Chong is a hero there. "Oh, yeah, man," he chuckles in
his easy baritone. "I'm a celebrity everywhere." Visitation rules had
to be changed at Taft, because inmates were getting loads of extra
visitors who just wanted photos with Chong.
We sit outside at a picnic table. On this crisp fall day in the
industrialized desert, the smell of cold sage and oranges mingles
with the musk of oil wells. Young cottonwoods rattle bright yellow in
a puff of breeze, and just inside the door, a Catholic priest in
robes starts a noontime Mass to a guitar-and-keyboard accompaniment.
Just for a moment, it seems like the world is inside out, and all the
peace is in here.
Chong is just getting to his new understanding of his government and
what his bust really means.
"I was never political," he says, "but they forced me into it."
Then he immediately takes it to the political level.
"It's not really against pot, because it's against our antiwar
stance," he adds. "Ashcroft said it. He said, 'If you support the
paraphernalia people, you're supporting terrorism.'
"But the government, as I found out, lies," he continues. "You can
tell they're lying by when their lips are moving. [He chuckles.] You
know, look at our president, with the 'weapons of mass destruction.'
I said that the only weapons of mass destruction they found were my
bongs. [He laughs.] So I'm doing nine months for a joke."
Beyond the dazzling new concertina wire, pro-Chong activism is
inspiring a mini-movement.
"The federal government has singled out Tommy to try to make a large
statement about the War on Drugs: that it's doing its utmost to crack
down on this issue," says Gary Lane, who co-wrote a screenplay with
Chong in the '90s. "And the reality is that they are so out of touch.
The universal movement is to decriminalize it. But in this country,
it's important that a 65-year-old man, a very well-respected
comedian, be incarcerated. It makes me sick."
Lane's comments reflect the general tenor of reaction in the popular
press and on the Internet. Comics were among the first to read the
writing on the wall. Jay Leno, no friend of the marijuana movement,
slammed the government in a monologue, as did Jon Stewart. Lane, an
ice-rink marketing director, co-wrote a still-unsold script with
Chong about a dope-smoking hockey team, subtly titled Biff Spliff and
the Potheads. In November, Lane organized the Free Tommy Chong
Brigade to march in Pasadena's annual Doo-Dah Parade, where, he says,
he received "a tremendous ovation."
"I think [Chong's arrest] galvanizes the movement, if anything," Lane adds.
"It definitely has a chilling effect," counters NORML's St. Pierre.
"High Times magazine would be a very good example. They started to
lose a very high percentage of their ad base immediately based on
that. So that has an immediate chilling effect on a magazine that, in
essence, is the First Amendment vehicle for the drug-policy movement.
Paraphernalia is a billion-dollar industry."
Chong is one of them who lost a lot of money selling bongs. The
company was still $500,000 in the hole on paper, he says, and he
didn't recoup. But his newfound notoriety is creating the ultimate
springboard back into Cheech & Chong.
"It all helps," he says. "I'm getting so much fan mail here that I'm
going to have to hire somebody to help me answer it. Mail call here
is like two sacks, one for me and one for the rest of the people."
Before he went to prison, Chong was already writing a book, The
Cheech & Chong Story. Now he's definitely going to write up material
about going to prison-and the stories he's heard from other inmates.
"Oh, absolutely! I'm definitely writing it. But I'm not going to do
anything radical until I'm out of here," he says. "And I got a year
of probation to look forward to."
That's time he's going to use for introspection, for his
drug-education classes ("I teach them more than they teach me"), for
building sculpture and for savoring his new relationship to his old
buddy Cheech. Which already seems to be off on the right foot.
"They said on the Internet that part of the reason I got a sentence
is because I never gave anybody up, you know?" he deadpans. "But I
woulda gave up Cheech in a minute! [Long laugh.] I woulda told on
him, man! And I know everything about him! And I still will if they'd
give me some time off!"
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