For all intents and purposes, Tommy Chong has spent his career as a trailblazer: Whether it be in comedy where he and longtime cohort Cheech Marin brought the humorous elements of weed culture into the spotlight for an entire generation and those that followed, or his extensive work as an activist and businessman in the blooming cannabis industry where he has started his own line of products over the years. Wherever you look in those categories, the pop culture icon is there, consistently reigniting his own desire to tackle the next best thing, even after nearly 60 years in the game.
Vanyaland recently had a chance to chat with Chong about it all, as well as the evolutionary process of both comedy and weed culture that he’s witnessed, life lessons he picked up during his famed stint in prison, and how his spirituality has brought him through all of it. Check it out.
Jason Greenough: The best place to start might just be the pandemic. How have you been holding up?
Tommy Chong: I’ve actually been flourishing during the pandemic. Something I think about is when I got out of jail, one reporter asked me how prison was, and I told him he’d find out one day. [laughs] I had no idea I was such a prophet, because everybody has felt what it’s like to be under house arrest.
But it’s been good because I’ve actually had a chance to enjoy my house. As a performer, you’re always on the road and traveling, so most of your time is spent in hotel rooms. And when you’re home, it’s either you’re entertaining or you’re going to be entertained, so your house is little more than a hotel room. But in lockdown, you realize how much brush is around your yard that needs to be cleared out.
It’s been a wild year, but alas, we’ve made it to yet another 4/20. Running the risk of being a bit cheeky, what are some Chong-approved tips for celebrating this year?
Chong tips for celebrating? Well, make sure that if you’re driving, you have a car. Don’t go on a motorcycle or a bicycle, and make sure you have a sober driver. The thing about 4/20, is that it’s really symbolic. It doesn’t change my lifestyle, but it is a reminder that we’re in an essential business. When they’re closing bars left and right, here I am talking about doing movies and TV shows and having our own pot shops.
It is a bit weird to think about that, for sure, but it’s cool to see how it is an essential business.
It is absolutely essential. Even though New York and New Jersey went legal, they’re still in that old regulation swamp, and that’s just those old bureaucrats trying to take money out of it, and they’re trying to treat marijuana as a ‘sin tax’ like booze or cigarettes, and I can’t help but keep telling people that it’s a medical thing, and it’s not going to stop being medical just because people want more income for the government. Which, that’s bullshit, because if you want more income for the government, tax these rich fucks that don’t pay anything. Leave us poor pot guys alone.
Treat it like what it is. It’s medicine, and you can’t tax medicine the way you tax beer or cigarettes.
Now, having been a cultural icon in both comedy and cannabis over the years, is it at all surprising to you to see the transformations both industries have gone through?
I just saw a rough cut of an upcoming Cheech & Chong documentary, and we go all the way back to the ‘60s, and I’ve always had the same attitude towards pot that I have now. Back then, even when it was highly illegal, I was a champion of pot, because I was a bodybuilder and my hero, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was a pothead. He wouldn’t drink anything with sugar in it, but he’d smoke a joint. [laughs] Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is another hero of mine, and he stretched his playing career because he used marijuana, so I know I’ve always been right about this, and I’m not surprised how everything has gone. If anything, I’m more tolerant and patient.
In what regard?
I don’t get excited over the legalization. It’s not like prohibition where happy days are here again. No, if anything, I got serious about it because I realized that sooner or later, Cheech & Chong would become iconic brand names for weed. I’ve already got my own name brand weed and my CBD out there, and we’re getting ready to open shops all over the place. I honestly hope I become one of the richest men in America, because I want to show rich people what to do with your money when you’ve got it.
You mentioned weed and CBD products. You also have a collaboration with RosinBomb that was just recently announced for a limited edition rosin press. How did that opportunity come to be?
Well, they needed a name to get their product out there, to give it a boost, and that’s what I do. That’s why I was on Dr. Dre’s rap records. He wasn’t a big fan of mine, but he knew my power of recognition with the record companies, especially, so he had me on a couple of his albums. It’s all name recognition, and it’s all about being true to who I have always been to this day. I was never an actor playing a part. Everything I did was from the heart, and it was a part of me. It’s who I am and what I believe, and that’s why I could never get into the acting world like Cheech did. I could never see myself playing a cop on screen, unless it was a cop that got stoned all the time. [laughs]
With your own products and this new collab, is there a next step for you in the cannabis game? Or are you good with balancing the opportunities you have now?
I’m always looking for the net best thing in everything, just like the dot com people. I was just having a conversation with my son about how we should have a Cheech & Chong channel. I think it would be a good idea, because that kind of stuff is the future. I love the technology.
For awhile, there were people bad wrapping AI, but I think AI is the answer to civilization, but I’m quite sure it was AI that helped the create the cellphones, which we’re using, and it helped create the electric car, which I’m riding in, and it’ll solve our infrastructure problems.
Well, we need all the help we can get at this point in those areas. [laughs]
What I’ve learned is that we’re not in charge. That bible was written for a reason, and it was written in code. So, if you can decipher the true meaning of the Bible, or be it any of those writings like the Quran, or any other writing like that, then you get an idea of what you’re supposed to be doing. The bible and other teachings, in most cases, are a blueprint of how to live your life, and to be happy.
For instance, when I went to prison, I realized that I could turn it into a spiritual retreat, and really prosper and come out with a good attitude. I threw the I Ching on the first or second day I went in, and the first thing it said was that I was in prison for a reason. [laughs] That kind of freaked me out, but prisons are correctional institutions where you go to correct your behavior. Now how vague and wise is that?
I really enjoyed prison, honestly, because it was an adventure. Not only that, but it gave me time to really evaluate and miss the people that I love, and then you realize that you are an individual, and shit happens to everybody for a reason. That’s what I learned, and I thrived. I wrote a book, and a I became an activist, and now here I am talking to you.
Looking back on it, where do you feel your career, in comedy, music or otherwise, would be without weed culture and the taboo of it when you were starting out in the ’60s and ’70s?
That’s a really hard thing to answer, but I can tell you, and I know a lot of people don’t like me going off on a spiritual rant, but I can tell you that I’ve done a lot of soul searching practically every day, because I’m at that age now where I have to realize that in 17 years, I’ll be 100. That’s not long. The first 17 went by pretty fast, and the second 17 went by even faster, so I’m really headed for the barn here. [laughs] I always think about and smile at the old guys who talk about how they had to walk a mile in the snow to go to school when they were kids, and I smile because I actually did that. That was my life. And when I was a kid, the only entertainment we had was church. And I really enjoyed the stories, and I remember my Sunday school teacher always telling me ‘God is everywhere,’ so I started asking ‘Okay, God. Where are you?’ and the next thing you know, I was looking up at the night sky on my way home one night and there were no clouds, and you could see everything going on in the milky way, and it was like I was being answered.
So with your spirituality in mind, do you feel like what you’ve done in your career, and what you’ve gone through outside of it, all took place as part of a spiritual journey or something like that in a sense?
Totally, totally, totally. Like I said, I went to check out a rough cut of a Cheech & Chong documentary [recently], and the only parts I objected to were when they didn’t tell the whole truth. The filmmakers took notes to fix it, but I can’t let lies slip by, because what happens when you live on lies, you build a house of cards, and eventually it will fall apart. Once part of your story falls apart, it makes everything else suspect. The folks took note of my objections, and they’ll probably fix it, but if they don’t I won’t let them get away with it, because it’s so important.
Honesty is what you learn in the spiritual world, and because the world is so exciting and interesting, and so thrilling, lies rob you of those experiences, and you can’t help anyone with that. You can’t help liars. They have to learn the hard way. On that note, that’s what has brought me to where I’m at now. Right now, I’m sitting on enough money to last me the rest of my life, and so all I have to do is tell the truth and enjoy whatever comes my way, and everything is coming my way.