By David Burton
If Tommy Chong seems like a more rational version of himself these days, it’s just an illusion. At 71, the more outspoken half of the legendary comedy duo Cheech & Chong is still a passionate advocate for cannabis legalization. He’s still committed to healthy living and protecting the environment, as evidenced by his latest passion project: a custom-built, electrically powered Ace lowrider designed by L.A.-based Hippy Motors.
What makes Chong seem so much more reasonable isn’t the result of any profound philosophical shift on his part. What’s changed is America itself. While most of us are just now seriously questioning the wisdom of our national drug policy, Chong has been decrying its insanity for decades. While America is finally waking up to the benefits of a healthy lifestyle and the importance of thinking green, Chong has been a committed fitness buff and environmentalist all his adult life. Simply put, society has evolved closer toward Chong’s vision of how things should be.
Unfortunately, that societal progress didn’t come in time to spare Chong the worst indignity of his life: nine months in a federal prison for a crime even the government admits someone else committed. In 2003, Chong was arrested and charged with illegally selling bongs through his son’s business. Though he didn’t own the company or approve the bong sales, Chong ultimately pled guilty—most likely to prevent the feds from persecuting his family. CULTURE interviewed Chong about his lowrider, his politics and his recent reunion with his close friend and shorter half, Cheech Marin:
Q: You had your electric Ace Low-rider on display at the June THC Expo in L.A. What’s the inside story about your new wheels?
A: I was going to make a lowrider, and then the gas crunch and increased concern about climate change hit all at once. I had a friend [Evan Singer of Hippy Motors] totally into electric cars, so I asked if he would convert my lowrider. He usually does little cars—this is a big car—so I challenged him: I said, ‘You could always make the little ones go, but can you do that with a big one? It would have a bigger impact. If we could take the existing inventory of cars and convert them, everybody will be happy.
What’s holding up the electric-car movement now are batteries. The oil companies have the patents on batteries and are not letting them go. I think China has started opening the floodgates and we’re just a couple of years away from having the technology to go full-out on converting existing cars to electric.
Q: What do you think the federal government’s prosecution of you for bong sales says about America’s marijuana laws?
A: It showed the desperation of the prosecution more than anything. It showed a government that was desperate. Things were sliding out of control on all fronts, with the war and the other scandals. What happened was the U.S. government went into desperation mode and decided to go all-out and just quit pretending. It wanted to stamp out the pot movement and started with me. The trouble is, it backfired on them, I think in part because I never resisted. They were looking for a fight. They were ready for a fight. They had all this legislation and enhancements—your sentence can be enhanced by your attitude.
I never gave them that option. They never had to deal with a pop comedian with a good record incarcerated for no reason. It backfired on them, to the point that it did the movement more good than harm. I showed people how hypocritical and out of touch the American government is with their people. This is really the first stage of the downfall of the American system. Obama is now trying to rescue a failed system, but the only way he’s going to rescue it is by changing it. Like a diaper, it needs to be changed.
Q: Where do things stand for you now legally?
A: I’m a felon. I’m not allowed to own a liquor establishment, not allowed to vote in some states, not allowed to own firearms, and I’m definitely not allowed to be around criminals. I really have to be very careful about what I do. The thing is, I was never a criminal. I was never a pot dealer, and never what I went to jail for. I’m a movie maker. My conviction helps in that area—I have a ton of street cred now. It’s all good, all good for me. The government has bigger things to worry about than me, if they ever really were worried about me. John Ashcroft is gone. [U.S. Attorney] Mary Beth Buchanan is right behind him—she’ll be gone. I was going to put out a rumor that she was arrested for assaulting Joe Rogan, but then I thought better of it.
Q: A lot of people say the timing has never been better for legalizing cannabis in California. Would you agree?
A: Absolutely. It should be legal everywhere, not just in California. It doesn’t even have to be really legalized. All they have to do is take it off the list of Schedule I drugs, leave it on Schedule II, and then it would no longer be a felony. Once they do that, all pot laws fall by the wayside. Schedule I says it has no medical use whatsoever. That’s the biggest fallacy going. If anything, marijuana has more medical benefits than it has recreational benefits. More and more people are smoking pot, and we’re finding out more and more things about the benefits of pot, no thanks to the medical community. The AMA [American Medical Association] likes that they have the pharmaceutical field all to themselves so they charge 1,000 percent higher for their products.
Q: How does it feel to be touring with Cheech Marin again?
A: Great, great, great. A labor of love. We both had come to the part in our careers where we either had to come up with something new or something old, and I feel we’ve done both. A lot of people enjoying us now have never seen us before—they didn’t even know we did a stage act together. We’re into new territory with this. We’re basically just trying to stay in good health. Cheech had to go into the shop for a new knee. We’re both watching our weight to stay at a respectable size.
Q: What other creative projects do you have
A: We’re going to do a move next—we’ll be releasing an animated project of our old record bits. That’s going to be a good one.
Q: To many people, you represent not just a voice of reason about our nation’s drug laws, but also the ideals of the peace and love movement of the ’60s. What do you think the 420 movement can learn from those values?
A: There are certain things that endure, that really make up the universe. Love is definitely one of the components—the main component that makes up the universe and all the universes in existence. Back in the day, when we had our backs against the wall and they were sending thousands of young Americans to their deaths, the only thing that stopped it was the realization that love and peace are much easier to live with than war and hate. That’s a message that’s universal—if you go on that path, a lot of good things will happen to you. The 420 movement has to learn nonresistance. Do not resist. There’s no resistance to love. It’s all about giving, and not about taking. People go around sometimes feeling like they deserve something for their sacrifices. They deserve peace for their sacrifice. Peace is the opposite of resistance. Once you resist anything, it exists because of your resistance. For example, if someone wants to fight you and you refuse to fight, there’s no fight. That’s what it’s all about.