Tommy Chong Is Back
Standing before a federal judge in 2003, stoner-culture icon Tommy Chong felt like he'd walked onto the set of The Twilight Zone. Ostensibly, he was there for sentencing on a charge that he or rather, his family's business, Chong Glass had sold an autographed glass bong over the Internet to a Drug Enforcement Administration agent decoy buyer in Pennsylvania, in violation of federal law; however, U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan's arguments to the court sounded more like an indictment of Chong's career choice that is, as a comedian, half of the legendary duo Cheech and Chong, aping the stoner lifestyle. Or worse Chong says, the sentencing felt more like an attempt to punish him for his long-held, very public pro-pot stance.
In February 2003, Chong's home was raided by the DEA as part of a taxpayer-financed sting operation, coyly dubbed Operation Pipe Dreams, designed to bust purveyors of drug paraphernalia. But Chong's sentencing hearing didn't seem at all focused on evidence related to that offense. Rather, Buchanan was disturbingly focused on explaining how Chong's legendary pot-smoking character from movies like Up in Smoke to his more recent, recurring role on Fox's That '70s Show was evidence that Chong, the man, had a dangerously "frivolous" attitude toward drug-law enforcement. (For more on the bust and Operation Pipe Dreams, see "Will Chong's Freedom Go Up in Smoke?" Sept. 26, 2003.) Although Chong considered his acting career decidedly beside the point, the judge apparently agreed with Buchanan and sentenced Chong to nine months in the federal pen and ordered him to pay a $20,000 fine. The whole episode is still mind-boggling to Chong, who considers his prosecution a blatant violation of his free-speech rights. "It's like [jailing] all of the Police Academy people for making fun of cops," he said last week, or using Arnold Schwarzenegger's gun-toting Terminator character to send him to the pokey on an illegal arms charge. It just doesn't make sense.
More to the point, Chong says, he considered the whole fiasco a thinly veiled attempt to stifle him from continuing to say what's on his mind: "The head [DEA] guy [directing the raid at Chong's house] and Buchanan and John Ashcroft are all graduates of the same school of dumb fucks," he says. "They wanted to make an example of me."
But if the feds intended to make an example of Chong some sort of Nancy Reagan bobble head just-say-no warning to other stoners and drug reformers they failed. While in the federal stir, Chong got a personal look at the continuing failure of the War on Drugs and he'll be in Austin this Friday, Aug. 18, to read from his first book, The I Chong: Meditations From the Joint, which he penned from the pen. The book is one part memoir of life as a half-Chinese, half-Irish kid growing up in Canada, one part a look at life on the inside, serving time as a casualty of the endless war on drugs.
The inmates of California's Taft prison camp, where Chong was exiled, are all nonviolent offenders who are either serving short stints, like Chong, or who are within five years of completing a longer sentence. In that way, Taft is something of a pre-release facility, and as such, it's about as free an environment as prison offers. Of the approximately 500 inmates housed at Taft, Chong estimates that the vast majority are there on drug-related charges and few, if any, were actual kingpins. Rather, most are like his friend Eric, a former golf caddy who was popped on a cocaine charge. "He was caught with a few grams not even that much, but he was put up on 'conspiracy' charges," Chong recalled recently during an interview from his hotel room in San Francisco. "He was never a dealer he was a user, a buyer and he got 12 years." Chong says that Eric's story was common: The caddy initially beat a state coke-possession rap only to have the feds swoop in and indict him on federal drug-conspiracy charges a sly, ethically questionable way to maneuver around the Constitution's double-jeopardy clause. Taft was lousy with methamphetamine addicts and convenience-store owners charged with trading in "precursor" chemicals (that is, popped for selling too much cough syrup and thus, many times unknowingly, Chong says, alleged to be contributing to meth production). The joint was also full of pot-growers, who, Chong says, were easy to spot: "They all worked in the prison garden. ... They grew the best gardens."
Seeing those guys in Taft some of them at the tail end of 20- or 30-year sentences, all for nonviolent offenses Chong says it was clear that the system is just wrong. "That was sad, sad, sad," he says. "In prison, you develop this look, like a caged bird or dog, because you're looking at years of doing the same thing, day after day."
It's been just over two years now since Chong walked out of prison, an ex-con for life, but a free man. It was a happy day, he says, recalling his July 2004 release. "I can't even tell you, it was such a gorgeous feeling." Chong definitely learned a lesson while in prison but says it wasn't the retributive one he believes the feds intended. "When I became [an American] citizen, I took a vow to uphold the Constitution of the United States," he says, including exercising his right of free speech to speak out in defense of pot, and against its prohibition. "Doing anything less ... would be a violation of my vow," he says. Federal officials "are not above the law, and eventually they will have to answer for what they've done."
Tommy Chong will be at Bookpeople, 603 N. Lamar, at 7pm Friday, Aug. 18, and at Hastings books in San Marcos, 917 Hwy. 80 S., at 2pm Saturday, Aug. 19, reading from and signing copies of his new book, The I Chong: Meditations From the Joint.