The Austin Chronicle

Naked City

NORML: Free Tommy Chong!

By Jordan Smith, October 24, 2003, News

At press time, comedian Tommy Chong is in his third week in federal prison in California, where he's serving a nine-month sentence after pleading guilty to selling drug paraphernalia over the Internet. Chong was popped in February as part of the federal government's much-hyped paraphernalia sting, code-named Operation Pipe Dreams. While selling drug paraphernalia is technically illegal, the decision on whether to pursue bong sellers as criminals has long been left to the discretion of local law enforcement agencies. OPD operations were based in Iowa and Pennsylvania -- two states with a reputation for considering paraphernalia peddling a serious crime -- and Chong was trapped in the OPD net after sending a hand-blown glass bong to Beaver Falls, Pa. While two previous Pipe Dreams defendants pled guilty to similar charges, each was sentenced only to six months of house arrest; so far, of the 50 Pipe Dreams defendants, Chong is the only one who has been sent to jail (see "Will Chong's Freedom Go up in Smoke?," Sept. 26). Chong and his supporters say the comedian's sentence is unreasonably harsh and claim that prosecutor Mary Beth Buchanan, the U.S. attorney for Pennsylvania's western district, used the pot-toking character that Chong has played for 30 years as evidence that the real-life Chong undermines drug-law enforcement.

On Sept. 17, attorney Stanton Levenson filed an appeal of Chong's sentence with the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, claiming that the government relied on "improper evidence" when sentencing Chong. "Apparently they have an inability to separate fact from fiction," Levenson told the Chronicle. Further, Levenson said that during the sentencing hearing, Judge Arthur Schwab "extracted a promise" from Chong that he wouldn't "use this experience" in any of his future "entertainment enterprises" -- a pledge that Levenson said is likely a violation of Chong's free-speech rights. Levenson is also asking that Schwab release Chong on bail while the 3rd Circuit considers his appeal. Schwab is expected to rule on the motion some time next week.

Meanwhile, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws has kicked off a "Free Tommy Chong" campaign and, along with Chong's wife Shelby, are asking that Chong's supporters drop him a line. "He's going to be getting a ton of mail," said NORML Director Allen St. Pierre. To join the letter train, address mail to: Tommy Kin Chong, Inmate No. 07798-068, Taft CI, Unit A No. 4B, PO Box 7001, Taft, CA 93268

Copyright © 2023 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.