Tommy Chong, Going Strong
He’s 80 years old and he’s beaten cancer twice, but Chong is still smokin’ — and wants to get you high.
Co-inventor of the stoner comedy Tommy Chong is still a standup example of everything that’s good about the marijuana industry. Like many early marijuana icons, he’s done time in prison, and the drug has helped him come back from life-threatening medical conditions. But now Chong enjoys high times as one of the country’s most successful celebrity marijuana entrepreneurs.
SF Evergreen had the privilege of chatting Chong up just after he visited San Jose’s Airfield Supply Co. dispensary, part of a tour of pot shops where his signature Chong’s Choice flower and vape cartridges are sold.
California law requires reporters to get permission before recording a conversation, so that is the first thing we ask him.
“Absolutely,” Chong replies. “You can do a Michael Cohen on me.”
Tommy Chong is constantly pulling your leg, indulging in sarcasm, or taking you to task with good-natured teasing in a way that an 80-year-old knows they can totally get away with. We ask how business is at Chong’s Choice, and he skips straight to wild exaggerations.
“We’ve had some offers from some big weed companies,” Chong says, obviously bullshitting. “They’re up to $100 million. But we’re going to hold out.”
His comic instinct is still constantly on, despite a difficult 15 years of personal setbacks, including prison time and debilitating health conditions. But he remains unflappable, always conveying a sense of whimsy despite misfortunes that would have broken anyone else.
His troubles started back in 2003, a time when Californians were getting our first shiny new medical cannabis dispensaries. The legal marijuana industry was ascendant, and it was easy to forget that pot technically remained illegal.
Chong got a painful reminder of this. Federal agents raided his Pacific Palisades home as part of a sting on his retail water bong operation, and he served nine months in prison. Whether he wanted to or not, he became the new public face of the medical marijuana resistance.
“I was just an actor who did pot movies and made records,” he tells us. “Then all of a sudden I got elevated to ‘activist.’ ”
A little Googling will show you that Chong is still a bong salesman — but he’s learned his lesson, and won’t sell them in the U.S.
“I have a company that sells them, but only in Canada,” he says of his venture Cheech & Chong Glass, a partnership with you-know-who. “When they make pot legal in America, federally, then it will be legal to sell the bongs. Right now, it’s still illegal.”
The hits kept coming after Chong’s time in prison. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2012, got it into remission, and then contracted colorectal cancer in 2015.
“Pot helped me cure everything,” Chong says, now having beaten the disease twice. “The pot saved my life both times. That’s why I keep smoking it. I don’t want to die.”
There are more stoner milestones he doesn’t want to miss, including this month’s 40th anniversary of the groundbreaking pothead comedy Up in Smoke.
“I tried to get us a star on Hollywood Boulevard,” Chong claims. “We couldn’t come up with the money.”
Los Angeles will still honor Cheech & Chong with a 40th anniversary Up in Smoke retrospective exhibit at the Grammy Museum. And yes, the occasion is bringing Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong back together.
“We’re going around the country and playing casinos,” he says. “It’s our 40th anniversary Up in Smoke tour. We’re all over the country with that.”
But Chong’s Choice is the man’s main pursuit these days, and you can follow his exploits with it on the “Netflix of cannabis,” a new startup called Cannabis Club TV.
“Tommy has his own channel on our network,” Cannabis Club TV CEO and co-founder Danny Keith tells SF Evergreen. “Being that he’s been in TV as long as he has, he understands the power of that message. It was a no-brainer for him to jump on and be our lead influencer.”
And it’s a natural fit for Tommy Chong to be the face of leadership in the new legal marijuana industry, bringing a voice of kindness and veteran experience to the big-money green rush.
“Chong’s Choice employees are the nicest people you’ll ever meet in your life,” Chong says. “That’s one byproduct of the marijuana industry, it’s created the nicest workforce in this world. You cannot go into a dispensary and not see a smiling budtender.”
“It’s like going to therapy when you buy your weed,” he continues. “People tell you, ‘If this bothers you, maybe you should try one of these.’ You have old ladies coming in for their sleep medication, and people in wheelchairs coming in to alleviate the pain of their injuries. The whole marijuana experience has become so gentle and spiritual that it’s going to create world peace. Maybe not in our lifetime, but we’re close to it.”
That’s an awfully philosophical view of the marijuana industry, particularly for an 80-year-old juggling several full-time jobs — operating a large scale cannabis corporation, performing on national comedy tours, and just dealing with the celebrity of being Tommy Chong.
“I have to get the autograph thing under control, man,” he admits. “I go to the airport and I spend like, an hour signing autographs.”
Tommy Chong has every right to be a jaded old man. The feds sent him to prison and ruined his career, and he’s had to cope with two of the most painful and difficult forms of cancer.
Instead, Chong has resiliently fashioned himself one of the luckiest 80-year-olds alive. He runs a legal cannabis empire, lends his voice to animated kids’ movies, and became the oldest person ever to advance to the Dancing with the Stars semi-finals — which he did so at the age of 78.
We asked if he could give us the secret to his optimism and good humor, or leave us with some wisdom for stoners of every age.
“Get a good lawyer and just deny. Deny everything,” Chong jokes.