Never count Tommy Chong out. The stonier half of America’s stoniest movie duo has had it, lost it, had it, and lost it again. Yet he’s still going strong.
For evidence, look to the 2016 presidential campaign. Chong stars in a viral video endorsing Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democratic candidate and proponent of legalization, calling Sanders the nation’s next “Commander in Kush.” He has also become a sort of celebrity spokesman for legal cannabis.
It’s a far cry from where he found himself in 2003. That year he entered federal prison after pleading guilty to helping his son sell bongs and other glass items online.
When he started his sentence at age 65, Chong vowed he would no longer smoke weed. It seemed to be the end of a storied career, a career that took off in 1979 with Up in Smoke.
Chong returned to marijuana to medicate
But things didn’t work out that way. He returned to California after his release in 2004 and developed cancer. When he underwent surgery to remove the tumors, he returned to marijuana as a painkiller. He also quickly resumed his advocacy for legalization.
Chong is a natural fit for the job. He and Cheech Marin brought cannabis humor to the big screen through the 1980s as Cheech and Chong, two zonked-out Los Angeles stoners who navigate the city while looking for weed and evading bumbling cops.
And that was part of what brought Chong down. During hearings in his case, prosecutors told jurors they should convict him because his movies disparaged police officers. It was political revenge.
The drug war is dying
But times are changing. The Bush presidency is long over, and the failures of the drug war are becoming apparent even to the most resistant conservatives. It’s as easy as ever to buy and sell marijuana paraphernalia on the Internet, without risk of arrest.
Cannabis is now legal in four states, and could soon be legalized in California. If it is, Chong is perfectly positioned to profit. He has already become a kind of pitchman for industry products, and his image is guaranteed to sell everything from grinders to hookahs.
In February, Chong was invited to speak – and party – at the International Cannabis Business Conference in San Francisco. The conference, which attracts activists and industry insiders, has become a major event in the marijuana world.
First ‘multi-territory’ marijuana brand
He spoke about Chong’s Choice Products, a line of designer strains sold in Colorado, Arizona, and California. It’s the first “multi-territory” celebrity cannabis brand, he said.
He’s hardly alone as a celebrity marijuana salesman. Willie Nelson, Snoop Dogg, Roseanne Barr, and the family of Bob Marley have put their names on weed, edibles, and paraphernalia.
Chong vouched for the quality of his pot, saying he personally inspects gardens in all three states.
“We hook up with the best growers and personally test it,” he said.
But successful as his pothead career has turned out to be, Chong said he and Marin could never make their movies in the current environment. The whole point, he said, was that the drug was illegal at the time.
“Where we are now, it would have put us out of business,” he said. “Because we made a fortune when it was illegal and we were running from the cops.”