There are a few things that might surprise people about Tommy Chong, the comedian best known for the amiable, dope-addled characters he plays in movies. First, he rarely smokes marijuana. Second, the zonked-out persona he developed for Cheech & Chong comedy routines was probably a major reason why he was sentenced to federal prison in 2003. And third, he's a libertarian.
At the risk of disillusioning millions of fans, let's start with the first surprise: Chong, who is to marijuana what Dean Martin was to booze, rarely partakes of the stuff. As he told the L.A. Weekly (Feb. 25-Mar. 3, 2005): "I never did smoke that much pot... I was more of a weightlifter. You can't exercise and be high. It's impossible. You can't do a lot of things when you're high. You can't be an actor in a movie. I know, because I tried all sorts of ways of being in character, and the best way is to be totally straight. The best way in life is to be totally straight."
But that "totally straight" approach didn't save Chong from becoming a victim of the War on Drugs. In February 2003, armed federal agents stormed Chong's house. Under a 1980's federal law, it is a crime to transport across state lines "any device for the use of illicit drugs," such as rolling papers, bongs, and pipes. Chong allowed his likeness to appear on smoking devices for Tommy Chong Glass, a business run by his son, Paris. After a DEA agent threatened to indict his son and wife, Chong pled guilty to federal drug paraphernalia charges.
Chong said the government targeted him because of his Cheech & Chong persona. "They came after me because of the movies, Up in Smoke, Cheech & Chong, and because of my act since 1968," he told L.A. CityBeat (December 4, 2004). "They took my character to be my real persona. And they wanted to make an example of me." Chong appears to have a point. During his trail, the federal prosecutor told the jury that Chong was guilty of "glamorizing the illegal use and distribution of marijuana and trivializing law-enforcement efforts to combat drug use." (The fact that Chong has publicly advocated legalizing drugs probably didn't help either.)
Chong served nine months in federal prison and later told L.A. CityBeat that the experience politicized him. "I was never political, but they forced me into it," he said. "[Attorney General John] Ashcroft said, 'If you support the paraphernalia people, you're supporting terrorism.' But the government, as I found out, lies. You can tell they're lying by when their lips are moving. 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."
To the degree that the experience "politicized" Chong, it seems to have merely pushed him in a more libertarian direction. Chong had already identified himself as a libertarian in March 1998 to Ken Bush, a longtime Missouri libertarian. As Bush later recounted in The Liberator (Summer 1998), he heard Chong on KMOX radio in St. Louis. "I phoned the show and chatted with Chong on the air about the dangerous effects of the War on Drugs," Bush said. "Later that week I called Chong at his hotel and asked if we could meet to discuss politics further. Chong agreed to meet me at the St. Louis International Airport.
"I found Chong to be a friendly, laid-back chap. We chatted near the airport gate for about 20 minutes, until his flight departed. I complimented him on his appearance [on the radio] and his courage in confronting the Drug War. Later, I popped the big question to Chong: 'Are you a libertarian?' He didn't have a definite answer; he seemed unsure.
"I was prepared," Bush continued. "I had brought with me the poster-sized Advocates' Self-Government Chart. Right there, in the midst of a crowded, busy airport, I gave Chong a quick two-minute crash course on libertarianism versus other political philosophies. At the end, I handed over the chart to Chong and asked him to point to the quadrant where he felt most at home. Chong held up the poster -- and pointed to the libertarian position!"
Chong, born in Canada in 1938, rose to fame in the 1970s with Cheech Marin as part of the comedic duo Cheech & Chong. Their rowdy, marijuana-themed humor struck a chord with young people, and the two released a series of hit comedy albums including Big Bambu (1972) and Cheech & Chong's Wedding Album (1974)
In 1978, the duo made the jump to movies, and starred in a series of marijuana-infused comedies, including Up In Smoke (1978), Cheech & Chong's Next Movie (1980), and Still Smokin' (1983). After Cheech & Chong split up in 1985, Chong continued to act, appearing in After Hours (1985), McHale's Navy (1997), Half Baked (1998), and other movies. From 1999-2002, he played the perpetually stoned "Leo" on Fox's That '70s Show.
-- Bill Winter
"The government, as I found out, lies. You can tell they're lying by when their lips are moving." -- Tommy Chong in L.A. CityBeat (December 4, 2004)
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