Freedom Leaf Interview with Tommy Chong
Legendary stoner comedian Tommy Chong is now a part of the Green Rush, offering cannabis products under his brand, Chong’s Choice, to adult-use stores and dispensaries. Turning 78 in May, he’s been dealing with cancer issues for the last decade. These days, Chong rarely performs with his comedy partner Cheech Marin. Instead, he’s attending trade shows, like the International Cannabis Business Conference in San Francisco in February, where this interview was conducted.
Back in October, you had cancer surgery. How are you doing?
I’m here. I’m alive. I’m vertical. I’ve got new plumbing. If it weren’t for cannabis, I wouldn’t be here today.
You’ve been using cannabis to help you deal with cancer. How’s that going?
I was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2005. Then I went on a very holistic diet. I asked this holistic doctor in Victoria, Canada how I should treat the prostate with cannabis oil. He suggested that I use suppositories. I used to make a joke out of it and everybody laughed. And then I was on Dancing with the Stars, and the next thing you know I was having a No. 2 issue. I went and got it checked out, and I found that I had a fucking tumor in the rectum! It’s the worst place you can get a tumor, believe me. I immediately thought, Oh my god, that’s where I put the suppository. Could it be? Yes, it could—that I didn’t get lab-clean oil. I asked the cancer doctors. They have no clue. It could have come from the prostate, or it could’ve been exactly what I said.
What’s your treatment regimen this time around?
I decided to go both ways. I told the straight doctors that I’ll do the operation and I’ll do the chemo treatment, but I’m going to do a shitload of cannabis oil, too. They said yeah, fine, no problem. I did the operation. I was only laid up for about a week. Then I started walking. The worst thing about cancer is you lose your appetite. Food doesn’t taste good. And when you stop eating, that’s when your body starts really deteriorating. So I started smoking pot again. I didn’t feel like it, but I knew I had to. And thank god, one night I woke up and I was hungry. I had the munchies. I went to the refrigerator, which I hadn’t done for two weeks, and I opened it like a stoner in the middle of the night. There was some roast chicken. I had a feast.
You have a Scottish/Chinese background, right?
My father was Chinese and my mother was a waitress. No, that’s a joke. She was Scotch Irish. In those days it was actually illegal in some states to have such a mixed marriage. I had an older brother, thank god, because then I didn’t have to do all the fighting. He did it. As soon as I can remember, we were fighting going to school and fighting coming back, because we were children of color.
This was in Calgary, where you grew up. What was that like?
I was always reminded, real early in my life, that I was not a white kid. In fact, I was close to a First Nations reserve up there. I actually identified more with them than I did with the white kids in the neighborhood. I grew up like an outcast.
When did you first smoke pot?
We had a jazz club in Calgary. I was 18 at the time, trying to get through high school. A Chinese bass player named Raymond Mah gave me a Lenny Bruce comedy album and a marijuana joint. He waited for me to light it, but I’d put the joint in my pocket, so he lit his joint, and it was the first time I ever smoked.
And how was that?
It changed my life. I was listening to music, to a tune by Ornette Coleman called “Lonely Woman.” I could see the woman the song was about in the window of a balcony of a hotel, and she was all alone. When you get high with jazz or a beautiful woman, it just makes everything so magical. So I knew, right then, what I had to do. The next day I went and quit school. You’re not teaching me anything I need to know. I’m wasting my time here. I’ve got to get on the street and learn how to be a blues musician.
You became a guitarist, and played in the band Calgary Shades, which evolved into Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers, who were signed by Motown and had a few hit songs in 1968, including “Does Your Mama Know About Me.” How did the band get on Motown?
Diana Ross heard about us, so the Supremes came down and saw the band. They loved us. She phoned [Motown founder] Berry Gordy. He flew to Vancouver, saw the band and signed us right away. And then he forgot about us.
It was crazy. When Berry Gordy ignored us, Bobby said, “Come on, let’s work our way to Detroit.” We were the type of band that attracted people like Jimi Hendrix. He came to see us before he was Jimi Hendrix. He got inspired by us! In L.A., we played a club called Maverick Flats. Everybody who was anybody in the music business was there—Chaka Khan, Earth Wind & Fire, the Fifth Dimension. They’d heard about Bobby. And when we played Detroit, it was something else. All of Motown was sitting there: the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Supremes. They were all in the audience listening to Bobby sing.
After your experience with Motown, you went back to Vancouver and started working in sketch comedy at local clubs. That’s when you met Cheech. How did that come about?
He was a draft dodger from the States. Cheech was working for an underground newspaper. The Russian guy who owned it was a fan of our show. He told me, “I’ve got a perfect guy for the straight man.” So that’s how I was introduced to Cheech. I didn’t know what the hell he was. What is he? Iranian? No. I’d never met a Mexican before. I’m from Canada, man. It was weird. I found out later that he’s Mexican. He was very straight. His name was Richard Marin. He never did a Mexican accent.
So you started performing together?
First we put a band together. We had a gig at this place that was doing a battle of the bands. We thought we’d do some comedy and then play some music, but we started doing the comedy and we couldn’t get out of the comedy. We did 45 minutes of comedy, and the crowd loved us. We actually won the battle of the bands, without playing a note! Afterwards, we decided we had an act. What should we call ourselves? Richard & Tommy? Nah. Marin & Chong? No. I asked him if he had a nickname. He said, “Yeah, it’s Cheech.” Cheech & Chong! Perfect. That’s how it was born.
What was it about Cheech that made you guys so special together?
Cheech can imitate practically anybody. He’s one of the greatest mimics ever. His comedic mind was just through the roof. But I had to kind of pry it out of him. We used to do typical hippie humor until we got to L.A. It was a dancing crowd, and they didn’t want to stop dancing to watch us. We had to hit them with something. Cheech and I had a discussion and we decided he could do the low-rider character. The minute he said, “What’s happening, man,” the crowd immediately went crazy. Forget dancing, they wanted to see this guy. That was the beginning of a very lucrative career.
You recorded a number of comedy albums, and in 1978 had your big breakthrough with Up in Smoke, regarded by many as the greatest stoner movie of all time.
Up in Smoke was directed by Lou Adler, officially. He did as much as he could, because we would make up things as we went along. We’d change stuff. That’s the way we did our live show—we didn’t think about it until we had to do it. So we never really followed a set script. Lou’s cut didn’t have an ending; it was an it-was-all-a-dream kind of ending. When we screened it, the Paramount brass walked by us like they were viewing an open coffin. They gave us that look, like, Oh boy, you guys really fucked up. I told everybody that we had to reshoot the ending, it had to be a better ending. I told them I was going to direct it. So I ended up directing the ending of Up in Smoke, and that propelled us into the movie career that we wound up having. It also made me the director of the rest of the Cheech & Chong movies.
You went on to make six more films with Cheech. Which are your favorite Cheech & Chong movies?
I guess Up in Smoke. After that, probably Still Smokin, because Still Smokin was our live show. It was shot in Amsterdam. We got offered a million bucks to do a live show. I thought, why not make a movie? It’s more fun than just your live show. Richard Pryor was in it, and it was also the first time Prince’s music was used in a movie—“Delirious,” in Still Smokin.
By the late ’80s, you and Cheech went your separate ways. What happened?
It was because Cheech got offered a movie—Born in East L.A. We kind of had our problems on The Corsican Brothers. Cheech said the dope thing had run its course. If we’re going to do it, let’s not have any dope in it. It was like a challenge, so I agreed to that. The studio that did it, Orion, sent me memos almost every day asking, “Where’s the pot?” It was kind of funny. So Cheech and I had our differences. Columbia offered him a movie without me. Cheech just got tired of doing Cheech & Chong. He hunkered off on his own.
While Cheech was playing a cop on Nash Bridges, you got to play yourself on That ’70s Show. What was it like working in TV after all those years making movies and doing standup?
I turned down a lot of television before That ’70s Show. When Cheech got Nash Bridges, Don Johnson also asked me if I wanted to be on it. I couldn’t see myself as a cop. When I got offered That ’70s Show, I took it because I knew they had pot smoking in it. They wanted the character I created in Up in Smoke. It was real easy. I loved it.
Your life took an unexpected turn in 2003 when you were arrested as part of Operation Pipe Dreams, and your Chong Glass company was charged with illegal interstate sales. You pled guilty and spent nine months in a federal correctional institution. How did that all affect you?
I always had this curiosity about jail. I walked in there and it was like I was with my fans. The first day I spent posing for pictures. You don’t turn those guys down. Actually, it was cupcake for me. The first night was rough—I went from a palatial house and king-sized bed in the Palisades [in Los Angeles] to a little cot next to a cement wall. You could hear the door being locked, and I got a chill being locked in there. It was a dormitory, and there were 200 men doing nighttime men sounds. It was like a jungle. I was like—Oh my god, I’ve got to be here for nine months? Then this peaceful thing came over me. I’d always been into the spiritual world. I could feel this calmness. From that day on, it was just an experience. I felt like an embedded journalist.
So much has changed in the marijuana world since you got out of jail in 2004. Cannabis is now legal in some form in 39 states. What do you think of the Green Rush that’s currently happening around cannabis?
It’s so exciting. Everything happens for a reason. Being illegal, as it was, created this super plant we have today. We know how to grow it, we know how to cure it, we know how to make oil out of it, we know how to use it medically. We know all this stuff in spite of the laws of the land. We have a system in place. So these laws that they’re trying to pass—you can’t have a dispensary near a school and all these stupid, alcohol-related laws—are laughable. People that buy pot buy it because they need it. It’s not like alcohol, where you get addicted and all of a sudden you need your alcohol or you’re drinking rubbing alcohol. Pot is so relatively harmless. What happens to people that smoke too much pot? They have a good sleep, that’s all. Making laws that treat it like a dangerous drug is ridiculous.
How would you rather see marijuana regulated?
Here’s the way I think it should be done: Sales tax. That’s all it should be. Pay your 10% or whatever to the government, and that’s it. When I was sick, I had tons of pot given to me free. That’s what we do as growers and pot lovers. If someone needs it, you don’t charge them, you just give it to them. Treat pot for what it is—it’s a gift from the creator. It can feed us, it can clothe us, it can make us smile, it can make us eat, it can make the sexual experiences out-of-this-world, it can keep marriages and families together. There’s so much. And it can cure a lot of things. I cured my cigarette addiction with pot. When I was 21, I used to smoke cigarettes. Every time I felt like a cigarette, I’d light a joint. Finally I was cured, totally off tobacco.
What else does it do for you?
There are so many things that pot encourages. It encourages your curiosity. But more than anything, it calms the brain. Pot calms everything down. Next thing you know, you’re not having seizures. You’re healing. When you sleep and calm down, then your body can
heal itself. You’re body is a phenomenal piece of art. It can do everything itself. It can heal. Pot calms everything down. I couldn’t live without it.
You recently came out in support of Bernie Sanders for the Democratic presidential nomination. When did you start to “Feel the Bern,” and why the decision to back him over Hillary Clinton?
My son Paris turned me on to Bernie. So I started checking him out. I love what he has to say. He’s very humane. He’s the perfect guy for the job, because he’s doing it for the love of the people. Hillary’s doing it for the love of the name. She wants to be the first woman president. I’d rather see Elizabeth Warren be the first woman, if anybody. Hillary cares about her legacy, based on the fact that she’s a Clinton. But that’s not enough. Her and [Florida Congresswoman] Debbie Wasserman Schultz still think marijuana is a gateway drug. I don’t want anyone like that anywhere near ruling. Bernie tells the truth. Like the Bib- le says, the truth will set you free. I see it in Bernie.
You’ve had some choice words for Donald Trump. What do you think of him?
Donald Trump really is the Republicans’ karma. All the years they tortured Barack Obama, you get Donald Trump in return. Donald Trump says what the Republicans think in their hearts. He says it out loud.