He became a stoner cultural icon in 1978 with “Up in Smoke,” the first of a lucrative series of Cheech & Chong movies that comically celebrated pleasures of pot during a wholly illicit era for marijuana.
Tommy Chong went on to go to federal prison in 2003 after pleading guilty to distributing drug paraphernalia by selling bongs and water pipes over the Internet. At 65, he announced he’d quit smoking the marijuana herb that made him famous and rich.
Years later, he was stricken with cancer, underwent tumor removal surgery and became a born-again medical marijuana user and advocate.
Now Chong, who turns 78 in May, is reemerging as a wry sage in the marijuana politics movement. He stars in a viral video endorsement for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, in which he backs the Vermont senator as the next “Commander in Kush.”
He has also become cannabis products pitchman in this unprecedented era of expanding marijuana legalization.
This weekend, Chong has been a speaker, party guest and sought-out presence at the International Cannabis Business Conference in San Francisco, a teeming industry and activism event underscoring marijuana’s changing place in politics, commerce and culture.
In an open ballroom, he has been talking up his Chong's Choice Products, a selection of designer marijuana strains touted as the first “multi-territory” celebrity pot brand. The products are grown in Colorado for recreational and medical dispensaries there and are also cultivated and sold for medicinal use in Arizona and California.
The celebrity branding underscores marijuana’s entry into pop culture marketing, years after the hey-day of Cheech & Chong.
Singer Willie Nelson has his endorsed cannabis line, Willie’s Reserve. Marley Natural markets specialty cannabis and pot creams in the name of famous Reggae singer, Bob Marley.
And last week, actress Roseanne Barr and business partners in Orange County announced a new Santa Ana medical marijuana dispensary, Roseanne’s Joint.
For his part, Chong says he inspects all the gardens in the three states where Chong’s Choice is currently grown. “We hook up with the best growers and personally test it,” he said of the finished medicinals.
And in an interview, Chong mused with amazement over the fact that he is in this position after cashing in as an actor and comedian by poking fun at pot use by exploiting its standing as a lawfully forbidden substance.
“Where we are now (with marijuana increasingly legal for medical or recreational use), it would have put us out of business,” he said of the movies he made with pot-savoring co-star Richard “Cheech” Marin. “Because we made a fortune when it was illegal and we were running from the cops.”
Now Chongson Inc., the company marketing Chong’s Choice Products, touts the marijuana line as a product governed by meticulous state oversight, including record keeping on lives of each cannabis plant and “seed to disposition” tracking monitoring cultivation and sales.
“Whatever it is,” he said of the new era of marijuana regulations, “I’ll endure it.”
Then, Chong stopped himself. He said he is in favor of a straight sales tax on marijuana. But as a senior spokesman for stoner culture, Chong said he personally wouldn’t have adopted vigorous state oversight regimens for marijuana as in California, Colorado and other states.
Under regulations signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, a new state Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulations will license all stages of marijuana production sales along cities, counties and numerous state agencies.
“We’ve already got a system: the underground system,” Chong countered. He added: “We don’t need to be told how to grow it, sell it, or smoke it. Just don’t put us in jail.”
In 2003, Chong found himself behind bars after he was sentenced to nine months in federal prison after being caught in a U.S. Justice Department sting, “Operation Pipe Dreams,” that targeted on head shops and drug paraphernalia distributors nationally.
After his guilty plea, Chong declared that he was pot sober, having substituted salsa dancing for marijuana. He even tried to distance himself from his Cheech & Chong fame.
“I play a loser for laughs,” he said. “My movie, ‘Up in Smoke,’ was made 30 years ago. I couldn’t make that movie today. I’m not that person anymore.”
Speaking to attendees at the Cannabis Business Conference, he told the rest of the story – recounting his journey back to marijuana, this time as a medicinal user.
In 2012, he announced he had prostate cancer and claimed he was healing himself with hash oil. Three years later, he was stricken again and underwent surgery for rectal cancer. He described withering away from nausea during both episodes, until he regained his equilibrium with marijuana.
“The worst thing about cancer is you lose your appetite. You stop eating,” Chong said. “Food doesn’t taste right. So I started smoking pot again. And one night I woke up and I had the munchies. I opened the refrigerator like a stoner in the middle of the night. There was a roast chicken there. And I had a feast.”
He added: “I’m here. I’m alive. I’m vertical. I’ve got new plumbing. If it wasn’t for cannabis, I wouldn’t be here today.”
So now, while supporting marijuana legalization for recreational use in California, he’s marketing his line of cannabis creations and re-embracing his role in marijuana culture. He suggests that pot, and his place in its politics is putting a bounce back into his step.
“I’m also the oldest runner up in Dancing With the Stars,” he said, celebrating his successful 2014 run on the popular program. “That’s a nice accomplishment for a stoner.”