Chong’s Choice: An Interview with a Cannabis Legend

by DJ Reetz

Celebrities are popping up everywhere in the legal cannabis industry these days, attempting to capitalize on their stoner images to form the basis of national brands.  Tommy Chong, elder statesman of weed, is no different. As an icon of cannabis culture, Chong’s status has attracted attention, for better or worse. For the worse like his 2003 arrest and prison sentence for selling cannabis paraphernalia in Pennsylvania; seemingly tied to his iconic status. Currently though, that status seems to be working out for the better with the launch of Chong’s Choice, a line of cannabis products available in multiple states. Because interstate cannabis commerce remains illegal, the brand will be using different growers in different markets.

THC caught up with Chong on the eve of the launch of his recreational line in Colorado to discuss the ins and outs of his celebrity cannabis brand, and to bask in his grandfatherly stoner wisdom shortly after the November election.

THC: Chong’s Choice is launching its adult-use line in Colorado. How did you determine which companies to work with?

Tommy Chong: We try the product. It’s very simple; we try the product, we look where they grow it, we look how they process it, see how organized and how together the operation is. Usually they’re great, because if they’re together enough to know that it would be good to have us on board fronting their product, that’s half the battle.

THC: Do you see any problems with having a brand across multiple states as far as consistency? If somebody were to buy a Chong’s Choice joint in Colorado it could be something totally different from what you get in California.

TC: Well, the great thing about our product is once your try it, it’s hard to determine what your name is, let alone whether or not the product is good [laughs]. The essence of what we sell, usually the quality is only known to connoisseurs like myself who have had experience enough to know. Like everything, a good 90 percent is in the packaging and the branding.

In fact, we got rid of some people in California that were trying to put inferior product into our brand; we got rid of them right away — it didn’t take long, we get complaints, we act on them right away.

Grape Stomper by Chong's Choice

Grape Stomper by Chong’s Choice

THC: The red “Get America Stoned Again” hat that you’re wearing seems to be a play on Trump’s campaign slogan. What are your thoughts on the recent election? Big win for cannabis … but maybe not?

TC: Big, big win for cannabis. Big win for the people. I’ve just given it a lot of thought last night especially; I smoked up and I did some reflecting, and I realized that we’ve got the right guy in the president. The American people did not make a mistake.

You talk about underdogs — and that’s why America likes underdogs, for the very reason that they have to be totally honest. Underdogs are stripped bare of everything, they’re stripped bare of support and they’re examined closer than anybody. And in spite of all that, it was his energy to win under all those extreme odds — I mean, that was extreme odds he was up against. They had me convinced that he would be terrible for the presidency. Once he won, I realized our system of government is so superior because of that nature. Guys like me that could be swayed easily because of decorum and etiquette, we’re not the guys that have to deal with everyday problems like the people that voted for him. The people that voted for him, they saw what I see now. The Apprentice was not an accident; when we saw how he handled people with kinda minor problems compared to world problems. But he put his energy into each show and each problem, he put his total energy into it, and he’s going to do the same with America.

Don’t let the Christies and the Giulianis and all that worry you, because [with] Donald Trump, if you don’t perform, you’re done. One and done.

THC: You were a Bernie supporter

TC: I was a big Bernie supporter.

THC: It sounds like you’re now a Trump guy?

TC: I am totally a Trump guy; I turned. In fact, I was going to tweet it, but I thought, I’m going to do an interview, so I’ll let you guys do it for me. Trump did not come out against pot. He said he would respect whatever the states decide. And even though he doesn’t smoke it, that’s the best attitude: let the people decide.

THC: There was certainly some reaction, at least with the Republicans taking the House and Senate, that perhaps this doesn’t bode well for the legal cannabis industry that’s formed under the Obama administration. You don’t see it that way?  

TC: Not at all. I’ll tell you why, because the Republicans acted the way they acted because they had a Democratic president in there, and they were out to stifle everything that that president did — which is the way the American system should work, it should not be a rubber stamp. We don’t need dictators; we need people that have to answer for everything.

Like Trump now, he has to answer the backlash of the Hillary supporters or the other people that did not want him in, and now they’re the ones that are protesting. Isn’t it weird? It’s so ironic that Hilary’s people are the ones that are protesting the election. And it wasn’t a close election, it was over that night. It wasn’t the next day you had to count and recount or anything like that. Trump won, and I’m with people that think he’s going to be the best president we’ve had.     

THC: If there is a crackdown on the legal marijuana industry, seems like there’s at least one US attorney that might want to have another shot at you.

TC: Me? Not really. [When] I got busted it was my fault, because I didn’t protect myself legally. There were a lot of people in the business that knew enough to protect themselves legally. What I did wrong was I [used] my name and I did not protect myself behind corporations. Like, if I had a Trump advising me, I wouldn’t have went to jail; he would have said, ‘Ok, but make sure you’re protected.’

THC: It just seemed like the US attorney that prosecuted your case had a personal issue with you.

TC: It was more the Attorney General, Ashcroft.  What happened was I would do radio — I was on the road by myself, I would do stand-up with myself and my wife — and I’d go to right-wing radio. Right wing loved me because I’m controversial. So I was on right-wing radio and I was outing everybody that smoked pot, and I was making up names just to bug ‘em. And so I said Danny Sullivan, the race car driver, he’s a friend of mine. And I said, ‘Oh, Danny Sullivan, he smokes pot.’ I said that in St. Louis, and that was Ashcroft’s home state.  I’m quite sure that radio show got to him […] and so they put a hit on me, they said, ‘Take this guy down.’ Plus it was the Iraqi war was just beginning so the Bush administration wanted to deflect some of the press to get the radical hippie side of it. And that’s when Bush came out and said that us potheads were supporting terrorism by selling bongs — we were supporting terrorism because all that money went into terrorist organizations […] And so they put a hit out on me and they created that Operation Pipe Dreams, and as a result, I was the only one that went to jail, because I was famous.

THC: It seemed like you were targeted because you were famous and had been a generational icon for cannabis consumption.

TC: And I was also an anti-war guy. I was totally against the war. I was against the war in Vietnam, I was against the war in Iraq; I had no idea.

THC: You’ve been pretty vocal about treating your prostate and colon cancer with medical cannabis. How’s your health these days?

TC: That’s another reason why I smoke pot. Luckily, I got cancer [laughs] so I could get my medical marijuana card. If I get stopped at the border or anything, I can just show them my medical marijuana card and tell them ‘I’ve got cancer guys.’ But the way it helped my cancer — this is the warning I try to put out to everybody: don’t rely on one method to cure anything […] make sure you get experts looking at your problem. That’s what I did. So, the doctors and oncologists they told me, ‘Yeah, use pot. But we’re still going to have to irradiate the area, you’re still going to have to get the operation to take out the tumor, and other than that, smoke all the pot you want. But this is what we have to do.’ And you have to do chemo, which I did. And now I’m cancer free.

What pot does to you when you’re sick, it gives you an appetite. Not only an appetite for food, but an appetite for life. You get your sense of humor back. That’s how you’re going to get through, you got to have your sense of humor and you’ve got to eat, because if you don’t eat, you die. As soon as I started smoking pot my operation healed, everything healed, and now I’m back on the road. I’m probably in the best physical shape of my life.

THC: That’s good to hear. Some people treat cannabis as a kind of wonder drug that can cure cancer all on its own, sounds like you think that’s a dangerous outlook.

TC: It’s totally dangerous. Do what you’ve gotta do, but it’s not a miracle drug. Just Google marijuana […] it’s been effective on brain tumors, it’s been effective on skin cancer, but [only] on some people. Now that we’re getting it legal, doctors are going to be able to experiment with it. Up until now, it’s been illegal to even try to experiment with it, to test it. And now there’s testing. In fact, I saw an ad in the paper looking for people to volunteer to be smokers [chuckles] and you get paid something like $5,000.    

Durban Haze by Chong's Choice

Durban Haze by Chong’s Choice

THC: Now that you’re cementing yourself as a figure in legal cannabis, do you think that the cannabis industry is still holding on to some of the ideals that you had in your younger days?

TC: More so. The thing is, I learned very early from very wise people. I got turned on by jazz musicians, and they’re probably the wisest people on the planet because they’re not only accomplished artists, they’re also intelligent gurus. You talk to any jazz musician and he’ll tell you the meaning of the universe, if you ask him. So I was taught very early.

What the cannabis did to me, it made me realize this is all I really need. I’m a body builder, I work out with weights, and I’ve been around very successful body builders, like Arnold Schwarzenegger for instance. I watched Arnold train during his reign when he was Mr. Olympia. The only substance he would do — he would not drink soda pop if it had any trace of sugar in it, he would not drink a bit of alcohol while he was training — but he would smoke a ton of pot. He’s six-time Mr. Olympia, he could smoke pot.

THC: Do you think he could smoke more pot than you?

TC: It’s funny you should say that. I was at a session that they had — they used to have a pot smoking session — and they had a giant bong, and all of these big muscle heads would put almost a half an ounce in the bowl and they would light it with a torch and then they would inhale. The whole trick of it was to breathe in so much that the pot would glow like a light bulb and then get sucked into the water and make an explosion sound.

Dave Draper was there, he did it, Arnold, a guy named Zaybo, Peanuts, there were all these big muscle heads, and I was there. They handed me the bowl and I took the smallest toke ever [chuckles] because I’m a one-toker. I took that one little toke and they all looked at me like ‘Ugh, who invited this guy?’

THC: Sounds like the conclusion there is that Arnold smoked you under the table.

TC: Anybody could. You could probably smoke me under the table. Here’s the trick though: it’s not how little you do, it’s how often you do it. I take that little bit, but I’m almost 80 years old and I’m still here. Arnold’s got bad knees and he’s limping around, but I can probably run down the block faster than he can.

THC: It seems like the character you created in the ‘70s is now used by the anti-cannabis crowd as a caricature of weed smokers, what are your thoughts on that?   

TC: Rightly so. It was a conscious decision of mine. When Cheech and I got together, we had a ton of characters; we had 200 characters that we could have done. But what we did when we were going to put two characters on the screen, I took sort of a page from Charlie Chaplin. Charlie, when he started his career, he had a lot of characters too. But the one that resonated with everybody was the tramp, because he was the lowest common denominator. So my character basically is based on Charlie Chaplin’s lowest common denominator. That’s why my character […] you can’t get much lower than him and still survive. And that’s another reason why I understand Trump, because he’d be right with him. I did that on purpose.

But my real persona is the guy that lasted longer than anybody on Dancing With the Stars, and I use that. I’ve got people of all ages that come up and say, ‘Hey man, you did great on Dancing With the Stars.’ I tried to do the stoner thing on Dancing With the Stars, but the producer said, ‘Oh Tom, every time you do that weed salute I have to cut to the mirror balls, so will you not do it?’

THC: Two hundred characters and the one that resonated with everybody is the Cheech and Chong character that we all recognize.

TC: Cheech the Chicano, the low rider who didn’t even have a door handle on his car, and Chong the ‘hey man.’ We called him ‘man’ because all he ever said was ‘hey man.’

Do you know the origin of ‘man’ by the way? I got it from the jazz musicians. The reason they used to call each other ‘ hey man,’ ‘good to see you man,’ was because back in the Jim Crow days they used to call black people boy. ‘Hey boy,’ ‘get over here boy,’ so as a protest they would call each other ‘man,’ because they’re not boys, they’re men. So I got that character right from the jazz guys.

THC: Any other characters that you still reflect fondly on, that you wish you would have continued to do?

TC: Ralph and Herbie, the doggies. But we’re too old to do what we used to do. That got us arrested one time in Tampa, Florida. We being Ralph and Herbie on our hands and knees, being little dogs, and Cheech went over and grabbed a cop — he was at the bottom of the stage looking out at the crowd — and Cheech leaned over and took the cop’s hat off of his head with his teeth. And then he peed on the cop. The next thing that we know we’re riding in a cop car going to get booked in jail.

THC: Seems like Cheech has gone on to establish himself as more of a mainstream actor, not associating himself with cannabis the way that you have continued to. But you’re doing a good amount of acting these days, like your appearance in “Zootopia”, Disney’s allegory for the drug war.

TC: Isn’t that something? I turned down Disney — I turned down “The Lion King” — much to everybody’s dismay, because Cheech made probably half a million dollars off of that, maybe more.

THC: It was supposed to be Cheech and Chong as the hyenas, right?

TC: Yeah, and I turned it down because it was Disney. I was making a protest, you know. If they won’t let me in their amusement park because I’m wearing a pot t-shirt, I’m sure not going to be in their movie. When they asked me to do “Zootopia” they knew exactly who they were getting, in fact they wrote the part around my ‘hey man’ character. Oh yeah, we’ve come a long way baby.

THC: An allegory for the drug war is certainly an interesting topic for Disney to tackle.

TC: Everybody’s evolving. That’s what I say with this country, this country is evolving. We’re going to be the Amsterdam of the continents.

THC: You come to Colorado fairly frequently.

TC: As much as I can.

THC: Where’s your favorite place to smoke weed in Colorado?

TC: In the mountains. In Aspen there’s a little grove they call the Jerry Garcia [Shrine], there’s a little shrine, I think Jerry Garcia’s picture is up there. The skiers come down and we meet there and we smoke. That’s one of my favorite places.

And then any hotel room that says no smoking, that’s my favorite place.

THC: You ever get in trouble for doing that?

TC: I got yelled at a few times. In Boulder, it’s weird, we’ve been going there for a few years and the hotel [management called us], ‘Mr. Chong, we’ve got a report of some smoke coming out of your room.’  And I said, ‘Ah, no worries, there’s no fire here.’

THC: So you guys are launching the adult-use line of Chong’s Choice here. California just went rec, I assume that’s in your future?

TC: Chong’s Choice in California! All over.

THC: The Chong’s Choice website even shows your line available at a medical dispensary in Arizona, which is certainly not known for a robust medical marijuana market or cannabis culture.

TC: There are people everywhere. You know the most popular state probably is New York, and it’s not [recreationally] legal there either. New York [City] used to be the hub of marijuana use in the financial district. You could walk down the financial district and people would be just puffing away. But then you got guys like Giuliani and idiots like that. But it’s going to be all over the world, believe me.

THC: There was definitely a broad referendum on cannabis this election cycle.  

TC: They did it. Look at Trump’s stance on cannabis.

THC: You think you could get Trump to smoke weed with you?

TC: I don’t think so. Trump has got his own agenda; he’s got his own addictions, and pot’s not one of them.  There are certain people that I would prefer, ya know, to be very straight, and Trump’s one of them, or the president — unless you need it. Only smoke it if you need it, that’s my thing. Don’t smoke it if you don’t wanna.

THC: Anything else you’d like to add?

TC: I just want to thank everybody. I want to thank the people that support Chong’s Choice, because if it wasn’t for you guys we wouldn’t be in business. So I really owe a debt of gratitude to everybody out there that uses my product, buys my records and supports my dancing and everything else. I love my fans. Without you guys, I would be just a stoned pot head somewhere.


After our interview, THC was contacted by a representative of Mr. Chong to clarify that while he is optimistic about the presidency of Donald Trump, he does take issue with the appointment of climate-change denier Myron Ebell to head the EPA.  Chong’s Choice is grown locally by the good folks at Verde Natural using organic, soil-based techniques. Look for the line at any number of adult-use dispensaries around Colorado.

     

 

 

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