Back in 2003, I heard the news that Tommy Chong had been arrested for selling drug paraphernalia. The details were sketchy, but it seemed that Chong’s art glass company had violated state laws that prohibited the sale and distribution of the accessories (glass bongs) one would use to smoke a loose-leafed substance.
Abuse of power in Government has been demonstrated throughout the history of this country. The film community felt it during the McCarthy years, enduring catastrophic career-ending blacklists.
When the Government has you in their crosshairs, it is a crushing thing.
Tommy Chong spoke to Monsters and Critics recently; he told me felt he knew the exact moment when he felt he had sealed his fate, speaking out against Attorney General John Ashcroft on one televised news show.
Chong was there to be the “funny stoner guy” and in the course of his humorous barbs aimed at Ashcroft, he set in motion a calculated seemingly revenge-filled campaign aimed directly at him under the ludicrous moniker, “Operation Pipe Dream.”
Ashcroft would have a last laugh on Chong, causing the comic actor and musician horrendous legal financial burdens and ripping the devoted family man away from his home.
In 2003, the business Chong Glass and proprietor/ figurehead Tommy Chong became the star subject of two federal stings named "Operation Pipe Dream" and "Operation Headhunter."
Chong Glass manufactured a line of colorful hand-blown bongs under the name Nice Dreams. The company was conceived by Chong’s' son Paris, who insisted the employees were familiar with differing state laws regulating the distribution of bongs through the mail.
One tenacious (and fictitious) head-shop owner in Beaver Falls, Pa., (heard in recorded tape played in the documentary), called numerous times and set up a massive order that would first be picked up; then when the merchandise sat unclaimed, he called to have it shipped to him after finally arranging to pay for the pending order.
This clever Federal agent spent months cajoling and entrapping an unwary Chong Glass employee into completing this large phone order of merchandise to one of the “no send” states of Pennsylvania, and that was the initiating action to entrap and bring in Chong.
In a humiliation tactic, one early February morning Federal agents raided Tommy’s suburban Los Angeles home with police dogs, helicopters and a phalanx of armed agents who took him away in shackles.
At the advice of his defense lawyers, who Tommy paid the “friend rate” of six figures up front in retainer fees, Chong was “rubber-stamped” and told to not fight it in court, and accept the plea of being guilty of conspiracy to distribute drug paraphernalia. The payoff for him was that this move would spare his business partner and son Paris and his wife Shelby of any possible jail time.
Chong willingly took the hit for his family; his only choice was to accept the plea and do the time.
He served nine months in California’s Taft Prison, and was fined $20,000 and forfeited an additional $103,000 in cash plus merchandise seized in the federal raid, on top of his astronomical legal fees.
Ashcroft hand-selected an ambitious rising star from the state of Pennsylvania to take the reins of his Tommy Chong profile case prosecution, Bush appointee, Mary Beth Buchanan.
Buchanan seized on Chong’s satirical filmography as a destructive legacy of promoting civil disobedience, disrespect for law enforcement (Sgt. Stedenko!) and “promoting” drug culture and humor that deeply offended her.
It was the Bush administration’s desire to appease the right-wing on this drug war issue, combined with Ashcroft’s anger and his and Buchanan’s shared dislike for Chong’s satire that made an example, and ultimately a freedom of speech martyr out of Tommy Chong.
Out of the 55 people targeted by these nationwide investigations, Chong was the only one without a prior prison record to serve jail time.
"With the advent of the Internet, the illegal drug paraphernalia industry has exploded," said Attorney General John Ashcroft the day armed agents pushed themselves into Tommy and Shelby Chong's front door that early morning.
"This illegal billion-dollar industry will no longer be ignored by law enforcement."
Documentarian Josh Gilbert notes in his narration of “a/k/a Tommy Chong” that when Ashcroft resigned in November 2004, he released another statement. This one read, in part, that "the objective of securing the safety of Americans from crime and terror has been achieved."
Federal prosecutor Mary Beth Buchanan’s long arm of the law extended past Chong’s actual jail time. Chong penned a book “I Chong: Meditations from the Joint” and was the subject of a brilliant documentary film, “a/k/a Tommy Chong,” made in 2005 by writer/director Josh Gilbert (now available on DVD), from the experience.
Buchanan authorized a raid last May in which 10,000 copies of the DVD of “a/k/a Tommy Chong” were seized.
Monsters and Critics spoke to Tommy Chong about his ordeal, his family, Cheech Marin and the film.
Your documentary, “a/k/a Tommy Chong” feels like a revenge tale against the Sixties counter culture in many ways. Is society more or less tolerant of drug-based humor?
Tommy Chong: Society is inundated with it now, so my answer to that is ‘more tolerant.’ Society has really become more enlightened and lightened up about pot, certainly.
But take the press, they can present any subject and show the humor in it For example, these nut-case Evangelicals who are against gay marriage and repress human sexuality, they just bring more attention to it in their act of repressing it.
You’ve got the Moral Majority tapping away in an airport bathroom stall trying to get a blow job. That’s funny.
It says “resist not evil” in the Bible, and they just don’t understand, don’t give this life.
What can any of us do to fight this power that swept you up in your life?
Tommy Chong: Be awake. It is apathy that will bring us all down. Who you vote for matters, and people vote for the silliest reasons, like “I can have a beer with this guy’, are you kidding? That is the dumbest reason to vote for anyone into office…voters need to be aware, you know, especially in America, which is ruled by corporations.
Corporations want you to eat and drink garbage foods which spur the sale of legal drugs for you to manage the resulting diseases. These are the same people will keep pot criminalized.
The GOP is very clever in running this con on people that convinces them to vote against their own best interests economically and they use fear and God as their tent poles.
And Democrat Joseph Biden was the one who authored the bill that put me in jail. He wrote the law against shipping drug paraphernalia through the mail -- which could be anything from a pipe to papers.
Why you? What was it that set off Mary Beth Buchanan and John Ashcroft?
Tommy Chong: Well, I believe it was during an interview in St. Louis Missouri, my gut feeling is that I tweaked John Ashcroft’s people with the interview, but the hosts of the show loved me; I was there for comic relief, then I started outing people I had smoked with and making people up too…he (Ashcroft) planned it.
Mary Beth Buchanan was an unknown federal prosecutor before 9/11. She came up in Pennsylvania when Bush appointed her. I was so naïve about the laws. She felt we (Chong Glass) should pay a price, and I was the symbolic figure and that’s when it all started to get crazy.
She had no problems prosecuting me based mainly on my political beliefs and my humor and attitude. Bush’s camp wanted the right-wing people who supported them to see they were going after drug abuse, and I was the perfect set up and target.
I don’t drink, I live healthy, and I'm not a dealer, I smoke pot because I know it won't harm you like alcohol.
What was the worst day for you locked up at Taft, and how did you manage to preserve your emotional and mental state being there?
Tommy Chong: My worst 1/2 hour was when I climbed into bed the first night. It was a narrow steel bunk with a 1/2inch mattress and one blanket.
There was a guy in the top bunk and another guy beside me on a cot. The dorm I was in held about 250 people and the noise was unnerving with people coughing, snoring, farting, crying, and moaning.
I felt fear creep into my throat and I started having a panic attack but then a calmness settled over me. My mind went to a biblical saying that I had been repeating in my head when I stood before the judge the day of my sentencing. "Thy will be done".
Over and over I kept thinking "Thy Will Be Done". This adventure was meant to be. And when that thought came into my head the calm descended upon me and I fell asleep and slept soundly until 5:30 in the morning when I was awakened with the loud speaker announcing ‘Hernendez report to the mess hall immediately’.
I never had a bad moment from that day on.
The scene in the film where you kissed the steps to your home after you were released from prison made me cry; was there a lot of emotion off camera during the making of the documentary?
Tommy Chong: Oh my goodness, yes. When I had to go and leave my normal life, all I could do was focus on the memory of the moment when I would return home. Oh my God, there was so much emotion at my home during that day I left for Taft, you know?
My old dog waited the nine months for me to come home. You see my old guy in the film, and he just hung in there and waited for me to return from prison; he would just watch the door every day.
A few days after I returned home, in the morning our cat let us know he died, just crying out loud, and that cat never cries. We went downstairs and found the dog had passed. We buried him in our back yard and had a little service. It’s illegal but we still did it.
I loved that whole part of the film. Cherish your freedom, it is everything.
You have mentioned there will be another Cheech and Chong film; what is the premise?
Tommy Chong: Absolutely, Cheech was tired of the movies we were making. And he doesn’t want to talk about it yet, but we are planning a film, and the premise and feel will be similar to “Up in Smoke;” we are working on stuff together.
You mention in the film that Cheech isn’t “that Chicano” anymore. I know he is a prolific artist. How would you describe your friendship now with Cheech Marin?
Tommy Chong: Oh, we're so close. We'll always be friends no matter what. We're actually more like brothers than friends.
Big brother has to accept the fact that little brother has grown up, and that’s the way it is now. I’m still big brother, and I am very proud of what he has accomplished in his life, as he is of mine.
What was it like working at Motown? What made you go into comedy?
Tommy Chong: Motown was a good experience for me for sure, I studied Berry Gordy the master, and I watched him and learned. I have always studied great men like Berry Gordy, Lou Adler, you learn so much.
It was a bit of reverse racism for our band because we weren’t black, and we were Canadian to boot. When I had to return to get my Green Card in Canada I was fired, like they didn’t believe it was a legitimate excuse.
But Gordy said ‘no man, you’re not fired, we need you’ took care of me and he paid me a lot of money, and it was all good, but eventually we moved on.
I was more a writer than a musician, and the comedy just came from that. I'm much better at comedy than I ever was being a Motown musician.
The old footage showing your daughter Rae as a baby was sweet to see, and you have a handsome son who is very funny too, you must be very proud of them both- what are they both doing currently?
Tommy Chong: Well I have five kids, and they are all doing really well.
Rae Dawn is living in Connecticut now. She is a great writer on top of her acting, and her son, my grandson Morgan is 27 and in LA.
Daughter Robbi is a producer and writer; Paris is surfing in Bali, he’s my business manager, and he is a great surfer too. My son Gilbran is a Yoga Teacher and acupuncturist, and my daughter Precious is a performance artist. They’re all great kids, and doing very well.
Which comedian(s) would you and your wife Shelby pay money to see live?
Tommy Chong: There's quite a few – a new guy on the scene named Ari Shaffer, and Ellen DeGeneres, Margaret Cho, and we’d give anything to see the late Richard Pryor and Sam Kinison again.
You did “That '70s Show", what other TV shows do you like?
Tommy Chong: Doing ‘That 70s Show’ was just a great experience.
Shelby and I love to dance, and we do watch ‘Dancing with the Stars,’ and I would love to be on that show only if she could be my dancing partner, she is so good, she got me dancing, which is something we do together quite a bit.
I love ‘Weeds’ on Showtime, that show is fantastic, and Elizabeth Perkins just steals the show. They had approached me to do a cameo in the beginning, but I passed.
Your film shows how much you love your wife Shelby; how long have you been together?
Tommy Chong: We’ve been together 30 years now; we met at a dance when I was married to Maxine, my first wife. It was love at first sight. It was Shelby’s snarly attitude when she approached our band, and asked us if we knew ‘Walking the Dog’ and I said ‘yes’, and she goes, ‘well play it then!’
I just loved that about her...She was this tiny and just beautiful, little thing.
She worries about me, and she is so smart, she parlayed all our real estate holdings into this vast empire. She made more money doing that while I was away than I had made in years.
She studies dancing, ballet every day, Shelby orders me around and I love it.
And we never take each other or our days together for granted.
Special Note: The documentary is a must own, especially for educators at high school or college level, it is an eye-opening true story of the failed legal system, erosion of civil liberties and the corruption and misuse of government power. It is well worth being included in your curriculum.
"a/k/a Tommy Chong" now available on DVD
• OFFICIAL SELECTION, Toronto International Film Festival
• WINNER HIGH TIMES STONY AWARD: BEST DOCUMENTARY
• WINNER Jury Award, Best Documentary - US Comedy Arts Festival
• WINNER Audience Award, Best Feature - Calgary Underground Film Festival
• WINNER Audience Award, Best Documentary - SF Independent Film Festival
• OFFICIAL SELECTION, Full Frame Documentary Film Festival
• OFFICIAL SELECTION, (SXSW) South by Southwest Film Festival