Writer, producer, musician, actor, and 80 year-old cultural icon Tommy Chong is well known for his portrayal of the classic stoner stereotype. Some might go so far as to say he invented the cliché. He’s made a career from his willingness to be typecast and his portrayals have brought cannabis to the forefront of controversial conversation for the last forty years.
Since the debut of Cheech and Chong’s beloved 1978 feature-length film Up In Smoke, the characters have appeared in more than a dozen movies. But don’t be fooled, the easily recognizable Chong is no one-trick pony. His diverse career includes forays into writing, voice acting, television stardom, and, most recently, marketing for his cannabis brand, Chong’s Choice.
Chong hasn’t always been rewarded for his counterculture lifestyle. Between 2003-04, he served nine months in prison for distributing bongs online. The battle with the U.S. Government and Operation Pipe Dreams (yes, that’s actually what they called it) did little to dissuade Chong from his subversive lifestyle. In fact, the prison sentence may have reinvigorated his career thanks to the widely popular “Free Chong” movement that arose from his incarceration.
We had the opportunity to speak with Chong in this exclusive interview to discover his favorite smoking tech, how his felony conviction impacted his business, and how his career helped shape the culture of cannabis as we know it.
Cannabis & Tech Today: For a long time, the joint was the preferred way to get high. Now that there are so many other options for toking up, how do you prefer to smoke?
Tommy Chong: I prefer the flower, the pipe, but I’ve got a few favorites. I’ve got one called the EZ Pipe. It’s a combination of lighter and bowl that you can fill up with an individual amount.
Then I have my own Chong “Not-A-Pipes.” They’re necklaces and we’ve been making them ever since I got busted for selling paraphernalia. That’s why I call them “Not-A-Pipes.”
Then I’ll do a bong now and then. I like the flame against the flower, the old way.
C&T Today: With the Chong’s Choice brand, you’ve had the opportunity to see a lot of cool technology. Is there any smoking tech that you’ve found particularly impressive?
Tommy Chong: All the vape pens; we’ve been really going through the vetting process with the vape pens. Then dabbing is still pretty popular with people who are used to getting lots of powerful THC in their lungs.
But the old joint, you can’t ignore the joint. It’s been our mainstay and it’s like a communal thing. I’ve even got a special way of smoking it, so you don’t have to put your lips on someone else’s lips.
C&T Today: Oh, how do you do that?
Tommy Chong: Well, I stick the joint between my little finger and my hand. Then I cup my hands, and that way, you inhale and get a lot of smoke and a little air. It’s like a carburetor too.
You can’t do that with a roach, you’d burn the hell out of yourself. With a big joint, you can do that. I’ve done it on TV a few times. An old friend of mine in Vancouver taught me that method and it’s good to this day.
C&T Today: You mentioned your felony conviction earlier, which can create hurdles for those working in the cannabis business. How has it impacted your life and your business?
Tommy Chong: Actually, it works in my favor. I was offered a pardon by Obama, but I decided that to accept a pardon would be to admit my guilt. That’s the way I looked at it. I turned it down on moral grounds because I don’t mind being tagged as the guy that went to jail for a bong, especially now that it’s legal.
They made me an activist and now I became, in a lot of ways, their worst nightmare because it is legal. It’s becoming legal all over the world now.
C&T Today: You’ve said that the first time you smoked cannabis it was like a light coming on. How has pot influenced your creative process?
Tommy Chong: Well, pot stimulates the brain. If you’re on the right track, it will stimulate the brain, whatever you’re doing. If you’re robbing a bank, it will make you a better bank robber. If you’re doing whatever – music, anything – it makes the brain more receptive.
You know that old saying, “You have a bad memory”? Well, when you smoke, you get put in the moment. If you are in the moment, there are times you will forget your wife’s name or your boyfriend’s name because you’re so in the moment that your brain is just dealing with whatever you’re doing.
It doesn’t allow you to drift into other thoughts. Now, it works on a negative thing, too. If you’re on a negative trip, sometimes it’s not a good idea to get high unless you want to go through that negative trip full force. I’ve done that.
I’ve been on some negative trips and then smoked a little pot and it makes it worse, which is when I refer to my spiritual books. As soon as those negative thoughts appear, I break out a couple of my spiritual books and just read a passage or two and then I’m okay.
C&T Today: You used cannabis during your experiences with cancer. Were those “negative trips” for you?
Tommy Chong: I had people close to me who had prostate cancer and rectal cancer, some of it is very slow acting, and they always tell you: “Oh, you’ll die of old age before you die of that.”
That was the prostate cancer that I had. Then I ended up with rectal cancer and even then, I never got negative. I never got down. It was like I was going through a fight with cancer and using marijuana as a weapon.
In the end, I had to use the normal methods. I had the operation and I had a colostomy bag installed – all that traditional medicine. The pot also made me aware that the traditional way, in a lot of ways, is better than just going all out holistic.
This is my take on it: the holistic thing can fool you because a lot of the healing that takes place was taking place anyway. What I learned is that the marijuana affected my brain to the point where I knew how to get the best cancer doctor, the best medicine, the best of everything. Be it chemo, be it radiation, whatever it took to beat it.
My attitude was never doomsday. It was a challenge. I was talking the talk for so many years and then I had to walk the walk. I came out of it really well. I’m almost back to being 100 percent now.
C&T Today: For many years, it seemed like stoners were an easy target for ridicule. Do you feel like you’re treated with more respect now that legalization is sweeping the country?
Tommy Chong: Oh, incredible respect. Incredible. In fact, for a while there, I was the go-to guy for Fox News for Bill O’Reilly when he was still there. They would have me on because I would piss off their viewers so much that the ratings just went through the roof.
The funny thing is, Cheech and I were never on Saturday Night Live. We were never recognized because we were potheads.
I once said, and Cheech quotes this all the time, they were talking to us about the evils of pot and young kids and all that bull****. I said, “Hey. What if we’re right? What if they find out that marijuana is a medicine and it cures a lot of diseases?”
Sure enough, Sanjay Gupta of CNN showed the video of the baby with epilepsy hugging her mom for the first time, a year old. She wasn’t a stoner, but she had epilepsy. Then THC and CBD oil cured it. Not just helped it, but cured it – as long as she’s got her CBD.
I’ve seen a lot of people with autism, with Alzheimer’s, with MS, and all sorts of ailments function. Montel Williams, he has MS so bad, if he didn’t smoke pot every day he’d be in a wheelchair. It is a medicine and I was right.
C&T Today: It was stigmatized for so long and you and Cheech played these characters that were the archetypes of the stoner. Do you think playing that role helped or hurt the conversation around cannabis?
TC: Oh, come on, it helped immensely. Immensely. I just saw a movie with Jennifer Garner [Peppermint] where she plays this mother that had to kill off all the bad Chicano gang members because they murdered her husband and her little child. Well, that was the stereotype they had on Latinos.
Like Donald Trump right now wants to build a wall to keep out gang members. He tries to demonize Mexicans. That’s why they made [cannabis] illegal in the beginning. They wanted a racist law to keep giving them a reason to go after people of color, brown people, and Mexican people. They came up with this cockamamie marijuana bull****. It was a racist law and it still is.
What Cheech and I did, we debunked the so-called gang member [stereotype]. Cheech was just having a good time – playing music, singing. He was a musician, a singer. Same as me. In Up In Smoke, I play a rich kid that was a hippie and a drummer and he was doing every kind of drug he could find. Marijuana was his drug of choice.
What Cheech and I did is change the perception of Latinos forever. We changed it. Now, people look at Latinos and see Cheech and they look at hippies and see me. We’re not only harmless, we help people.
We’ve always been positive and we just pass that on. Even to law enforcement. When I was in prison, I was treated so well. Literally, I had more power than the warden. We were shooting a documentary in the warden’s office and just as a joke, I yelled out, “Quiet! We’re shooting here.” I had the warden, I had everybody tip-toeing around and not talking to each other. It was something to see.
I was criticized on social media. There are a couple of guys that troll me. One guy said, “You know Chong, you used to be a nice guy and now you’re so political.” Well, I haven’t answered him back. I doubt if I will. The answer to that is that I’ve always been political, my whole life.
I was raised in Calgary, Canada, as half Chinese. Then I found out later that I’m eight percent Native, so I’m not only half Chinese, I’m part Indian, and the rest Caucasian. I’ve always been a hybrid, dealing with race issues all my life. All my life.
I’ll die dealing with them because they’re not going to change. That’s the way the world is. That’s what I say to all the critiques, just watch a movie, listen to an album. Don’t criticize until you know what you’re talking about.
C&T Today: Do you think that’s why storytelling is such an important part of your life?
Tommy Chong: Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely. Cheech joked one time… They said something about Chicanos and Cheech says, “No. Actually, I’m Iranian.” Well, we got the best response from the Iranian community that you could ever imagine.
They were just totally delighted that Cheech was Iranian. What’s the difference? We’re all human. We could have been anybody… It’s so silly. It’s so ridiculous because we are all one. I don’t condemn anybody.
That’s what all the religions teach you, “We are all one.” Jesus told everyone that everybody is equal, and that was such a radical idea at the time that the Romans had him murdered.
No, I don’t condemn anyone. I don’t condemn Donald Trump. I don’t condemn anybody because everybody is here for a reason, and the reason Donald Trump is the president is because we do need to clean up our system. We need to clean out the hypocrisy and the corruption. Who better than the King of Corruption himself to show us where the enemies are?
C&T Today: I think it was the Buddha who said, “The minute you feel anger in an argument, you’ve stopped looking for the truth.”
Tommy Chong: Well, look at the Buddha. He was an Indian prince that figured it out. He goes, “This is an illusion. The real world is the spiritual world.” There was no beginning and no end. The physical world is a school basically. We’re all going to school in the physical world and that’s why you can’t down anybody.
I did a movie once called Zootopia. I learned so much from that movie because they had all the animals in there and what it showed was that every animal had a place in society. The hippos and the elephants and the rhinos and the lions and the sloths and the rats and the weasels and the rabbits. They all exist on this earth and they’re all part of it.
That’s the same as humans. Big, small, brown, black, white, it doesn’t matter. We’re all here for a little while and then we’re gone.
Then we come back.
Feature image credit: Neil Visel