Higher Ground: Tommy Chong, Reconsidered

At 76, the pater familias of the legalization movement won’t slow down.

I’ll be honest. My expectations about a press conference with Tommy Chong, of the famous stoner duo Cheech & Chong, were that there would be some clichéd humor, some pantomimed puffing, and photo ops galore for hippies of a bygone era. And there was some of that. But there was also something I didn’t expect: a fresh perspective on the new pot movement.

The reason Tommy Chong matters—and the reason I’m writing about his recent visit to Seattle’s CannaCon—is that each and every time there’s a mention of legalization or the counterculture or pot smoking, there’s inevitably a reference to Cheech & Chong. Even if the name is never spoken, a haze of Cheech & Chong wafts through the mind. (See?!)

The new conventional wisdom is that the cliché stoner jokes that found purchase in the duo’s franchise are outmoded and of a different era. But what if the beliefs that undergird these jokes are not passé? What if they’re an iconic and important set of core values still relevant—values that should not be lost as we move into a ganjapreneurial era driven by economic and opportunistic rationales?

“We’ve got a great show going on here,” Chong noted at his February 20 press conference, “but everybody here is breaking the law and subject to arrest according to our government. Even though we voted legalization in, and the people spoke, we still have police and a government that’s out to arrest us.” The man knows of what he speaks: In 2003 Chong was arrested, convicted, and put in federal prison for nine months. Not for selling or smoking marijuana, but for having legally licensed his name to a company (Chong Glass/Nice Dreams) that made water pipes—bongs—that were sold across state lines. I can tell you that if I was tossed in the slammer for nine months, I would have exited one angry motherfucker. Not our friend Tommy Chong.

“I got singled out—and ya know what? I feel blessed!” Chong said with his infamous and mischievous grin. “I was looking for something to revitalize my career. Cheech and I were fading into the distance and I needed something. And then it came. It was like my prayers were answered: You’re going to jail! Great! That’s the way I looked at it.”

Today Chong puts his name on everything from hemp water (Chongwater!) to Chong Star marijuana to Smoke Swipes (for the parent who goes out to fire up and doesn’t want to return to the dinner table reeking of weed). But his philosophical attitude isn’t an act. He’s a product of the ’60s and walks the talk—mainly about pot.

“Pot’s only good if you give it to someone or you smoke it. You don’t have to hoard it. Because in a few months, you’ll have a new crop! So you gotta give it away! That’s what you gotta do with your life. That’s the secret! You gotta give love!”

The more I listened to this smiling, effervescent 76-year-old ramble, the more I realized why he is such a joyous inspiration. Sure, there are cliched truths about “hippies” that I don’t fully embrace: the lack of showering, the unkempt beards, and those Godawful tie-dyed T-shirts. But the core values of these counterculture beatniks? Peace, love, and understanding? An “It’s all good” outlook? Communal interests? Harmony with nature? Egalitarianism? Sustainability? Positive vibrations? Good lord! Tell me we couldn’t use more of the “Make Love Not War” mindset in this divisive FoxNews era of angry, trolling, Twittering punditry.

Chong was half an hour late for his news conference, and catching a glimpse of the icon slowly ambling down the convention hall, I saw why. He stopped for each and every stoner, head, hanger-on, and pothead who’d jumped at the chance to get a photo with the legend.

“It’s true,” Chong noted during his hour-long chat. “I’ll take a picture with anybody. And there’s a reason for that. We don’t have much time. We think we do—especially when we’re young. But we don’t.” Chong knows this better than most, after beating prostate cancer with the help of the CBD oils in, yes, marijuana. “When someone asks for a pic, that’s a compliment. They’re not asking everyone—they’re asking me! It’s not a burden. It’s a privilege! Most people my age will either be retired or limping around. Me? I’m going Dancing With the Stars!”

Four decades after Up in Smoke, Tommy Chong is hardly couchlocked, but still a relevant player in the marijuana movement. He’s been a vocal supporter of another group being singled out for using weed, the Kettle Falls 5. He may no longer be the official face of marijuana: the new Green Rush lends itself to sexy budtenders and Seth Rogan and Snoop. But I sure wish he was.

higherground@seattleweekly.com

For more Higher Ground, visit highergroundtv.com.

 
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