Tommy Chong: the king of green

The iconic stoner chats with us about Detroit, cancer, and Donald Trump

Tommy Chong rides through Hazel Park in a replica of The Love Machine with his son, Paris.
Tommy Chong rides through Hazel Park in a replica of The Love Machine with his son, Paris. Photo by Dustin Blitchok

It's a Friday morning, and Tommy Chong is about to ride up John R in a replica of The Love Machine, the 1964 Chevy Impala from Up in Smoke. He has one hand on the chain link steering wheel and what Cheech Marin might call a Led Zeppelin-sized joint in the other.

When asked if he wants to blaze, though, the most iconic of stoners declines. "It's still Michigan," he says.

The 77-year-old comedian, actor, weed entrepreneur, cancer survivor, and onetime Detroiter has licensed his own brand of marijuana, Chong's Choice, in Michigan.

With state law allowing marijuana only for medical use, Chong is holding off on launching his bud here until it's fully legal. When Chong's Choice does arrive in Michigan, the strains will surely be tested by their namesake.

Chong is confident that attitudes — and laws — governing marijuana will only continue to relax.

"The fact that the medical establishment in America has embraced marijuana has done two things," he says. "It's forcing the states to legalize it, and it's increasing the black market sales tremendously. Tremendously."

In Hazel Park, home to B.D.T. Smoke Shops, Chong is positively mainstream, having received the key to the city during a visit last year. Plans are in the works for a bronze statue of Chong to be erected in the city.

As he signs autographs for fans at B.D.T., Mayor Jan Parisi and City Manager Ed Klobucher are among those circulating in the crowd, as visitors sip hemp-based "CHONGWATER" and songs by Santana, War, and the Zombies play in the background.

The Love Machine replica, created by Rick Gore of Oregon, Ohio, ferries Chong from B.D.T. to a private lunch at Mabel Gray, a fine dining restaurant opened by chef James Rigato.

Gore froze individual frames in Up in Smoke so he could record details and get the car exactly right. "I still am in disbelief," Gore says of driving with Chong. "He was pointing out stuff that he remembered from the movie."

MT spoke with Chong as he made appearances the day before speaking on the University of Michigan diag at the Ann Arbor Hash Bash.

"They're panicking. It's the death throes," Chong says of marijuana raids — and Detroit's new ordinance regulating dispensaries, which greatly restricts the locations where they may operate.

"It's just like the oil industry. They're like dinosaurs or ancient mammals being sucked into the pit," he says. "They're doing the same thing in California, by the way. There are a lot of DEA busts now. They're busting people that are growing medical marijuana just because the law's on the book."

Chong served nine months in federal prison in 2003 after a bust for shipping bongs and pipes sold online under his name across state lines. He negotiated a plea deal, saving his wife, Shelby, and son, Paris, from a prison sentence.

"I felt like a journalist being embedded with the troops," Chong says of his time at the Taft Federal Correctional Institution in California.

"It was a political arrest. I was a political prisoner, basically. It was during the George W. Bush reign when he was into Iraq and they needed a diversion, so they went after the bong industry. I happened to have my name on the bongs, and was the most famous bong maker at the time."

He recalls offering encouragement and feedback to his cellmate, "Wolf of Wall Street" Jordan Belfort, as the financier drafted his memoirs. "I saw the potential in Jordan," says Chong, who would converse with Belfort while the ex-stockbroker played backgammon at the same time. "He's a bona fide genius. I've met a few in my life, quite a few. And Jordan's one of them."

When President Barack Obama prepares to leave office, he can expect to receive a request for a pardon from Chong: "For no other reason than just to get it off the books, so I'm not a felon anymore."

Chong is endorsing Democrat Bernie Sanders, but says GOP candidate Donald Trump has been helpful in at least one respect.

"What Trump's doing, he's really outing all the idiots in the world," Chong says. "If someone says, 'I'm for Trump,' right away you question the person's mental capacity."

The Drug Enforcement Administration is weighing whether to reclassify marijuana this year, removing it from the same Schedule I category as heroin and Ecstasy. And with multiple states voting to legalize marijuana in full or for medical use, the landscape has changed since Chong's release in 2004.

"Now that there's (legal marijuana use), it takes away the criminality of the paraphernalia," he says.

Tan, fit, relaxed, dressed in a black leather Cheech & Chong jacket and riffing on everything from the 2016 election to social media, Chong seems far younger than his 77 years. "I feel like a teenager," he says. When Chong reached the semifinals of Dancing With the Stars in 2014, he was the oldest contestant to have ever done so.

"When you get old, you forget you're old," Chong says, remembering an encounter with Eagle Joe Walsh while visiting The Howard Stern Show. The comedian pretended not to recognize the guitarist, saying "that's not Joe Walsh!"

"I am so!" Walsh replied.

Chong fought cancer twice and underwent surgery last year after a rectal cancer diagnosis. He credits the herb for helping him get by.

"It was more like five doctors with their fingers up my butt at one time," he says with a chuckle. "I went through an operation. I got the plumbing rearranged. I'm good with it. Actually, it's more convenient now."

During lunch at Mabel Gray, Chong tells former Red Wing Darren McCarty how he began exercising while lying on his back after surgery. McCarty wears a sweater with a Wings logo merged with a pot leaf for the occasion.

Weed, which Chong mostly ingests by smoking, has kept his appetite up after surgery. "The biggest thing about medical marijuana is that it gives you an appetite for life," he says. "It gives you an appetite for food, but food is life. If you don't eat, you die."

Chong describes all of his pot use as medicinal. "I don't smoke for recreation," he says. "I smoke to help me sleep, to help me eat, to help me live."

Weed, Chong says, "is a tonic for the brain," and the effect of each strain depends on the user's state of mind: "There's so many strains that you could strain yourself thinking about the strains."

Before Chong achieved fame as a comedian and stoner, he was in a band, Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers, signed to Motown Records and living in the Motor City just after the 1967 riots. He remembers hanging out on Plum Street, Detroit's answer to Haight-Ashbury — "patchouli oil, the hippest people on the planet, beads, bells, incense, crash pads, Hare Krishna" — and Greektown.

Marin, Chong's comedic partner in Up in Smoke, Nice Dreams, and classic comedy albums like Big Bambu and the Grammy Award-winning Los Cochinos, markets his own brand of marijuana, and the two continue to make stand-up appearances. But don't hold in your bong hit too long waiting for another film from the duo.

"To tell you the truth, I can't see improving ... I think it can only be more pathetic than anything else," Chong says. "We're letting Up in Smoke speak for itself. That's our legacy."

Working with Marin after so many years is "a pain in the ass," Chong jokes. "Trying to get him to be Cheech can be a problem. But I get him high, and then he forgets and becomes Cheech. It's funny. We've become grumpy old stoners."

Chong's plans for the future include an art exhibit — he has a terrific glassware collection — and his own line of emojis.

Before he steps out of the car to meet fans at another head shop, Chong offers some parting advice.

"Get a lot of sleep. That's what I tell everybody."

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