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He's taking one big hit

Chong, who built a career on drug-based humor, begins serving a nine-month term for selling paraphernalia.

October 10, 2003|Hilary E. MacGregor | Times Staff Writer

This is another pot story, starring Tommy Chong. So it should be funny. Only this time, it's not.

Not to U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, who announced dozens of indictments under "Operation Pipe Dreams" in February. Not to U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania Mary Beth Buchanan, who heads Ashcroft's advisory committee and turned up in court in Pittsburgh to personally accept Chong's guilty plea. Not to Asst. U.S. Dist. Atty. Mary Houghton, who prosecuted the case. And definitely not to Tommy Chong, who will be spending the next nine months in federal prison.

On Wednesday, Chong turned himself into the Taft Correctional Institution, near Bakersfield. He had pleaded guilty in May to selling bongs over the Internet through his family company, Nice Dreams Enterprises.

The severity of his sentence has left Chong, his family and friends dazed and convinced that the government prosecuted the wrong man -- the archetypal pothead he played as half of Cheech and Chong on comedy records like 1973's "Los Cochinos" and in hit movies like 1978's "Up in Smoke," or the doped-out hippie he's played in comedy clubs for the last decade with his wife, Shelby, and his Family Stoned Band, or maybe Leo, the aging, waaaay-out photo lab owner he plays on Fox's "That '70s Show." All of those Chongs lived for one thing: to acquire and consume superior marijuana.

"It's unfortunate that the government can't distinguish between the character I have been playing for years and my real persona," Chong said in one of several interviews over the last week. "It's a very helpless feeling. It is a character. I'm mystified. That is why I have no defense."

His longtime partner, Cheech Marin, who is slated to write a new Cheech and Chong movie with him for New Line, finds the situation absurd.

"I feel like I'm stuck in one of my own movies," Marin said. "These are the same kinds of simpletons we were fighting when we made ["Up in Smoke"], in terms of a repressive administration. That Tommy Chong is going to prison for this is a total miscarriage of justice. The administration should hang its head in shame."

Chong's daughter Robbi, who will produce the new movie, said she thinks sending her father to prison is the government's way of trying to shut him up.

"He's a comedian," she said. "This feels much more political. The only way you would believe it is if it were in a movie -- that my father is now Public Enemy No. 1 of the Justice Department."

More mature look

His heavy-lidded eyes still give him a mellowed-out vibe, and he still has a subversive sense of humor, but today's senior citizen Chong, 65, is a meditating, woodworking, charity-giving, inner-city-youth-teaching father of six who has been married to the same woman for more than 30 years. He practices Bikram yoga and hasn't gotten high since the bust. "I'm on a protest fast," he said.

He is barely recognizable as the doobie-obsessed goofball of his Cheech and Chong days. Gone is his trademark tangle of hippie hair, replaced by a trim gray beard and hair cut neatly to his shoulders. On Monday, at his last tango lesson in Los Angeles, Chong glided across the floor to the melancholy rhythms of that passionate Argentinian dance, looking more like a cultured intellectual than an icon of the counterculture.

Fiora -- just Fiora -- who has shown Chong's sculptures and installations at her Ghettogloss gallery in Silver Lake, considers him a talented woodworker and photographer who continues to exercise his First Amendment rights in all his creative endeavors, which is really cool. She dismisses those who say his artwork just looks like bongs.

"Tommy is a really organic guy. I think he is about organic visuals," she said. "People think his flower vases are something else, but they are flower vases. I don't run a smoke shop. I run an art gallery."

But it is easy to see why the public, and the government, are confused about where the character ends and the real Tommy Chong begins. He hasn't taken a toke since February, he says, but he would if he were in Amsterdam or Canada, where it is legal. A healthy strain of pot humor peppers every conversation. And he still likes to poke fun at the feds.

"On the eve of my jail term, if you had told me Arnold Schwarzenegger would be the next governor of California, I would have said, 'What are you smoking?' " he quipped.

He visited a healer last week and performed four shows at a comedy club in Lansing, Mich., over the weekend. He shopped for prison necessities on Monday and spent the rest of the day in a photo shoot for Vanity Fair. He took his final tango lesson that evening, and chatted with a reporter between dances -- captured on video by his friend Josh Gilbert, who was filming the last free days of Tommy Chong for a documentary.

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