Watch the classic movie up in the smoke And listening to “Earache My Eye” was pretty much Tommy Chung’s self-awareness. Did I know that Chung was a living legend recognized as an advocate and hero for the plant? Yes, I did. But why he was such a legend remained elusive to me even when I saw him arrive at the Cosmopolitan Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip for our exclusive interview.
Of course I knew he was one half of genius movie comedy duo Cheech & Chong (along with Cheech Marin), but what I didn’t appreciate was how important Chong was to modern cannabis culture. There’s clearly a reason Chong is considered among the weed greats – Snoop Dogg, Willie Nelson, and Bob Dylan – and I’m determined to find out the exact reason why.
In researching the 84-year-old Hollywood actor, I was intrigued to learn more about the circumstances surrounding the time Chung was imprisoned for simply selling a glass bong, or that his entire career was more or less devoted to raising cannabis. Yes, i was excited to meet chung to begin exploring the history of legend that is second to none with this herb.
Chung came to Vegas to be honored at the annual cannabis conference with the organization’s inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award. He is joined by his wife Shelby, son Paris, daughter-in-law Mercy and his two-year-old granddaughter (Chung’s second trip to Sin City in as many days). Earlier in the week, local officials honored the film’s companions by designating August 22 as Cheech and Chong Day in Clark County.
After all the anticipation, I almost missed him as Chung walked inside the luxurious Cosmo Hotel, kissing his family. His hair slicked back with a pronounced beard caught my attention at the last minute, though he gave us a moment to shake our hand before he checked us in and the elevator disappeared into his suite. Nowhere are Chung’s glasses, headband, and shoulder-length locks that were synonymous with his celebs and silver screen half a century ago, to be found. But his current, cleaner look seems to work for him now.
“I like this spot, man,” Li Zhong said in a deep, raspy, friendly voice.
Dressed in a trendy long-sleeved T-shirt, black slacks, and a pair of brightly colored red, yellow, blue, and white sneakers, Chung looked ready to venture straight into Vegas’ infamous neon jungle, but his family convinced him to freshen up first.
Waiting for the man of the hour in the wide hallway – you join me hemp now Founder and publisher Eugenio García – as we were all set to accompany Chung to a cannabis conference and then on a trip to Noooo, a huge Native American-owned dispensary on tribal land near downtown Vegas. It was worth the wait.
Garcia drove the legendary stoner to the waiting SUV limousine while I grabbed a middle row seat next to Chung, flashing the voice recorder on my phone. Unhurried, Chung jumped right in and started talking about his time in prison, and how far cannabis culture has progressed in the past two decades. The game was on, and I was here for it.
Chung served nine months—from October 2003 to July 2004—in prison at the age of 65, after he was caught up in a federal crackdown on sellers of housewares, mostly glass bongs. The feds alleged that two companies he ran with Shelby and Paris, Chong Glass and Nice Dreams, were illegal in part because they promoted drug use. To be clear, Chung’s family did not sell marijuana or any drugs of any kind – just bongs and pipes.
“I had a crazy childhood — I was separated from my mother very early; she had tuberculosis and was in a sanitarium for five years,” Chung tells me as we head to the awards dinner. In the meantime, I went to another hospital for pleurisy, and then they took me to an orphanage. When I entered prison all those years later, I felt, in a way, more going home because I grew up in prison more than anyone who came from a so-called “normal” family. And I think that helped me find my way in this very universe.”
Although it has been nearly two decades since he left prison, this experience has greatly affected the way Chung sees himself and the world at large. He says he became close friends with his cellmate, Jordan Belfort, the so-called “Wolf of Wall Street” – notably portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in the award-winning film – and claims to be the inspiration behind pushing Belfort to publish his memoirs which the movie was based on. However, as he continues to reminisce about his time behind bars, Chung kind of deflects from answering most of my questions on the ride. But I duly insist, and when asked, “What about cannabis culture?” Chong finally offers the following motivation: “It’s like living in a dream.”
Garcia, on cue, hands Chung a pre-roll, and it’s like a wrench suddenly popped into a movie star’s head. Chong respectfully accepts an invitation to get into the sharp car, which is filled with a basket of Cheech & Chong’s trademark flower, after the driver on the hotbox blesses the car. Chung fixes his eyes on sharp as he inhales, then closes them as a soft channel of smoke emerges from his mouth and nostrils. It takes me a while to realize I’m with Tommy Chong because the guy was getting high. how. amazing. He is. that.
We arrived at the less glamorous Paris Hotel where Chong’s was scheduled to sign autographs at the Cannabis Convention. Chong was already starting to calm down as he walked down the casino floor on our way to the hotel’s massive conference area. A few wide-eyed casino and restaurant patrons deliver the expected “I love you, Tommy!” While a daring pair of tourists jumps in front of him for a quick selfie.
I think being an iconic comedian and world-renowned cannabis advocate would be stressful, having to deal with strangers who approach you every time you’re in public. But Chung is remarkably receptive and welcoming to anyone who wants to meet him. In fact, he clearly enjoys talking and hanging out with fans just as much as the iconic suits and characters that make this whole journey happen.
A middle-aged couple stopped him to take a picture. Taking the photo takes longer than expected, because Chong starts talking about cannabis policy with them. “If more people in this world were as open minded as you two, it would be a much better place,” he told them emphatically.
Chung is now fully present and engaged. He’s as eager to listen as he is to speak, which is honestly exciting. signs autographs and poses for photos at the FOHSE booth for 45 minutes; Then we hopped back into the black SUV to continue our conversation on the way to NuWu.
Chung is likable and earnest, the man transformed thanks to the plant. Now fully engaged, Chung looks me in the eye when speaking, revealing an authenticity that’s hard to find in celebrities. He seems more like a friend than a celebrity. I realize this may just be their not-so-secret sauce. I caught you! this Why is he so loved.
Chung turns the topic to spirituality as it relates to the plant and says bluntly: “It’s a silly medicine! It won’t harm anyone.” But he was quick to dismiss the notion that cannabis has come full circle since the US government first demonized and then banned it again in the 1930s. He says the story of plant recovery will not be complete until cannabis is federally legal. He also believes that this will happen soon.
Our trip to the tribal infirmary, which includes the only cannabis consumption lounge in Vegas, shows what the future holds for Chung. Customers rip pongs, take molasses and blow on joints in an upscale, bar-like setting without alcohol. The Las Vegas Paiute Tribe has special permission to operate a cannabis business on their land with privileges that off-reservation weed companies do not have. A young NuWu shopper, wearing a black T-shirt with huge green cannabis leaves on the front, recognizes Chong on his way out of the store. Before riding his bike away, the man pulled up to our motorcade and asked the 84-year-old where his comedy partner was.
“Shish!” The man screams in case of mistaken identity. “Where is your other half? You can’t go anywhere without Chung.”
“Zhong is an idiot,” the real Zhong roared again, grinning to himself.
I kept wondering if Chung was going to get tired, when he started acting nonchalant, like he was done with the whole thing. A few hours and I’m still waiting for him to at least ask for a break or retire to his room for a few minutes. he did not do.
Tommy Chong’s experience was as real as it gets for a real-life Hollywood star. He’s living proof of the plant’s amazing powers – and a man who lived a full life.
This story was originally published in Issue 47 printed edition of hemp now.