When I first got my job at High Times I wondered if I was going to meet Cheech & Chong. A warm artifact from my youth, I first saw them perform at The Bitter End with my friends a few weeks after we saw George Carlin. We were probably smoking out of the same bag of weed when we watched them hit the stage from four feet away. They were still fairly obscure, weirdly multi-cultural, shockingly crude, loosey-goosey, hysterically funny and – crucially – stoned. Very stoned. Profoundly stoned. Wonderfully stoned. As were we.
I had no occasion to meet them during my first few years at the magazine, but as ad director I knew Chong’s son slightly. Named for the city in which he was conceived, Paris Chong was the founder, co-owner and chief operating officer of Chong Glass. Still in his early twenties, Paris had his finger on the cultural pulse, and his Chong Bong was a decent addition – neither the best nor the worst – but the crucial distinction that made it competitive was the goofy caricature of his old man’s face stickered on every tube.
Years later, when all was said and done, someone asked Tommy what lessons he had learned.
“If you’re going to sell a bong,” the comedian quipped, “don’t put your face on it.”
Tommy’s star was back on the rise when the DEA came pounding on his door. The 70s Show, had revitalized his career. In retrospect, a prime time television personality slinging bongs on the side sounds on its face like a bad idea. But, circa 2002, when Chong wasn’t filming the sitcom he was making head shop appearances promoting the family smokeware. And there were rumors that Cheech & Chong reunion might happen. Tentative plans to move forward were certainly in the works when, on the morning of February 24, 2003, there was a loud knock on the Chong family’s Pacific Palisades door.
Operation Pipe Dream was an industry-wide dragnet deployed by the DEA that targeted 37 glass manufactures and distributors in the U.S. Hundreds of homes and business were raided, and 55 individuals were arrested. Among those taken into custody was the actor Tommy Chong.
Tommy might have been the face on the Chong Bong, but he was not involved in the company’s day-to-day operation. It became clear that there was not have enough evidence to convict the comedian, but his wife who signed the papers and his son who ran the business were another story. Tommy was given a simple Faustian choice: either you go to jail or your son goes to jail… and maybe your wife too.
So he served nine months in the Taft Correctional Institute in Kern, County. California. Among the 55 Pipe Dream defendants, he was the only one without priors to go to jail. He was clearly the main target of the operation, the jewel in their crown. So when he walked out of jail in July 2004, Tommy was a changed man and he wanted to tell his story.
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A few months later I was in San Francisco for the annual NORML conference. Mid-morning, while walking through the hotel lobby, my cell phone rang. It was Keith Stroup, the founder of NORML.
“Rick, do you have any pot on you?”
Actually, I had a bag of this newfangled California Honeybud in my pocket.
“Could you bring that to my room.”
Imagine my surprise when Tommy Chong opened the door.
That morning during the shesh in Keith’s room I heard Tommy’s tale for the first time, and a few hours later I heard him repeat it for over 200 donors at a NORML luncheon fundraiser. In short order, Chong turned into a tireless advocate for cannabis law reform. He made himself available for appearances, gave speeches and granted interviews. The story of his arrest and imprisonment is still best told in his jailhouse monograph, The I Chong – Mediations from The Joint (Simon & Schuster, 2006). And His final surrender to the authorities was well-recorded in aka Tommy Chong, a surreal documentary by an impressively determined director named Josh Gilbert, who regularly borrowed my desk and my office in New York while he was trying raise money to make the film.
(I should pause here to recall that Josh was most impressive as a reefer dad who never stopped talking about his kid. We had that in common. He died too young after a long battle with cancer in 2016).
On the day before his surrender I received an astonishing phone call from Tommy Chong.
“You’ve got nothing better to do today than call me?” I cracked.
“Yeah, man. I just wanted to say thanks, and let’s stay in touch.”
Honestly, I didn’t know that we were in touch, but I’ll take it. I’m sure Josh put him up to it.
“Of course,” I said, “Take care of yourself, Tom, and let’s talk after you get out.”
It’s a cliche’ for a parent to say I would do anything for my kid, and we’re lucky if we never have to put that statement to the test. But when Tommy’s parental mettle was tested, when the government threatened his kid, he took the hit square in the chest because that what dads are supposed to do.
“Yeah. I had a choice,” he told me after his release, “And when it came down to it I told Paris, No, no, no. There’s no way I can walk away from this. I told everybody. I talked the talk and now I gotta walk the walk.”
I have met many admirable reefer dads over a long career. None were more impressive than Tommy Chong.
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