December 10, 2003 - San Diego City Beat
Tommy Chong's New Joint
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, thoughtcrime 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 Chong."
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, were asleep.
"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 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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