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Ashcroft's Errant Hammer

September 13, 2003

The gumshoes of the Justice Department must love Tommy Chong, the aging comedian/actor who until recently had a business making expensive blown-glass bongs. That's bongs, not bombs. Chong was sentenced Thursday to nine months in federal prison for sending one of those art-glass smoking devices across state lines. Unlike terror suspects or bomb makers, Chong was easy to find (a home in Pacific Palisades and a business in Gardena) and posed no threat of violence.

The same goes for the smokers and growers of medical marijuana in California, many of them slowed down by AIDS or cancer or even confined to wheelchairs. The state's voters approved medical marijuana use in 1996. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft makes a credible case that some drug abusers wrap themselves in the cloak of "medical" use and that sellers of paraphernalia aid the abuse. Even so, that doesn't justify a heavy-handed federal law enforcement campaign against Chong and other small fry.

Chong most recently had a recurring role on Fox TV's "That '70s Show." With former partner Cheech Marin, he made a handful of silly movies including 1978's "Up in Smoke," and cut numerous Cheech and Chong comedy records of social comment and dope humor. Too bad Chong, 65, evidently didn't know when to leave the past behind him.

It's unlikely that Chong would have received a nine-month prison sentence in California. Federal prosecutors in June had requested a 6 1/2-year sentence for Ed Rosenthal, known as the king of Northern California medical marijuana growers. The presiding district judge gave him one day, time served. Chong's work was displayed last year at a Silver Lake art gallery without any law enforcement interest. But a Chong bong had turned up in Pennsylvania, the headquarters of a Justice Department crackdown on paraphernalia purveyors, so he was sentenced by a federal judge there.

A federal prosecutor in the case acknowledged that Chong, who had no criminal record, "wasn't the biggest supplier [of paraphernalia]. He was a relatively new player. But he had the ability to market products like no other." And to make headlines.

Ashcroft's predecessor, Janet Reno, tried to intimidate doctors who recommended marijuana for pain relief or appetite stimulation. But Ashcroft revived and expanded what amounts to a picayune crusade.

Measured against the war on terror, the crusade is a misuse of resources. The upside is that perhaps it will keep prosecutors too busy to examine library records for seditious reading under the USA Patriot Act.

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