Q&A With Tommy Chong

Q and A with ...

December 23, 2004|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,SUN STAFF

Tommy Chong believes he got busted not for being a stoner but for having a public persona as a stoner. Authorities arrested the latter half of the comedy duo Cheech and Chong in February 2003. He was charged with selling drug paraphernalia - specifically, a bong with his picture on it - and shipping it across state lines. He served a nine-month prison term that ended in July. Calling the charge a "commerce technicality," Chong said he believes the government went after him because of his counterculture rep, which he owes to the six gold comedy albums he recorded with Cheech Marin and to their series of pot-fueled movies, starting with Up in Smoke in the '70s.

Now 66 and sporting a white beard that makes him look almost dignified, Chong lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Shelby. Born in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, he became a U.S. citizen in the late 1980s. He and Shelby regularly perform a comedy nightclub act in Canada, and he shows up periodically on That '70s Show.

Unbowed by his recent incarceration, he's still talking about weed. This month, he appeared off-Broadway at the Actors' Playhouse in The Marijuana-logues, a theatrical paean to the highs and lows of cannabis culture, and he plans to appear in the show's West Coast tour in the spring.

How was jail?

Jail was probably the most exciting thing that's ever happened to me. I was put into a category with Lenny Bruce, Nelson Mandela, St. Paul. A lot of prophets have gone to jail.

Did your fellow inmates know who you were?

Oh, everybody knew. I was like an icon. There's a hierarchy in prison, and I was right at the top. You're divided by race. The bikers, the white-supremacy guys, they hung together. They had a picnic area where they would smoke their cigarettes. The Jewish guys, they had a gang. They were in charge of the library. The blacks took over the basketball court. There were also a few famous athletes I cannot name. I hung out on the bocce-ball court.

You sound like you almost had fun.

You have to have a very positive, happy attitude, or else you'll get picked on. They can smell hatred. Guards especially. To be in a situation where you have no rights whatsoever is something I wish everybody could experience. People's attitudes would change. It would be a better place.

What was the first thing you did when you got out?

I went to Starbucks. To me, that's freedom, to walk into a coffee shop and pick what you want. The coffee in prison was undrinkable. Everything was inedible in the mess hall. It was so bad that I would fast one day a week. You didn't want to eat that food anyway. Fasting made me healthy and also gave me a nice high.

You believe you were prosecuted mostly for your pothead image. Is your gig in "The Marijuana-logues" a way of thumbing your nose at the authorities?

No, it's the opposite. It's like upholding the oath that I swore when I became an American citizen, to uphold the Constitution. I look at it in a very noble manner. A lot of people have died for my right to do what I am doing. And I like the fact that The Marijuana-logues is in a theater. It gives a respectability to the play, and to the message, which is that marijuana is not all that they would like you to believe it is. It's not even a drug. It's an herb. It's medicine. Not only should it be legal, it should be mandatory.

I hear you and Cheech have started writing a new movie.

It had been a long time since we'd worked together, but by doper time, it could have been a half-hour. It's really nice. We're partners again. The movie's going to be Up in Smoke, 30 years later. A friend of mine wanted to call it Grumpy Old Stoners.

But you don't smoke pot anymore.

I made a vow when they busted me that I wasn't going to smoke until I was in a place where it's legal.

Do you miss it?

No, not at all. When you get older, you really don't need to be calmed down. And if you've smoked as much as I have, there's the tolerance thing. I'll tell you, I haven't smoked for two years, but I still get munchies.

Newsday

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