Higher Ground: Talking shop with Tommy Chong

It's April, the month of Hash Bash, the month of 420, the month that outdoor growers begin getting ready for spring gardening.

But anytime is a great time to talk with Tommy Chong, one of the all-time coolest stoners. Chong, who broke ground doing stoned comedy way back when, has been a lifetime activist and entrepreneur in the field.

More recently he has been a medical marijuana patient. He's seen all sides of this marijuana thing, even spending some months in jail in a plea deal for selling bongs and waterpipes through an internet-based business.

"Because of that, I can't sell bongs," Chong told me when he visited the THC Festival at the Roostertail recently.

Which is ironic because his Chong's Choice brand legally sells marijuana, oils, containers, vaporizers, and THC strips in Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon, Montana, and Washington. Most folks would probably feel much safer, legally, selling bongs than the stuff Chong is peddling, but in Chong's case it's the other way around. While he was in town he met with potential distributors for his Chong's Choice products. When we see the brand here, it will be the first of the big celebrity-branded lines in the state.

The other two lines of note nationally, Willie's Reserve and Leafs by Snoop, are branded by guys that Chong mentioned when asked who are the coolest stoners he's ever met.

He stopped to think about it for a few seconds, then said, "Willie Nelson, followed very closely by Snoop Dogg. These are stoners who have gone through the wars. And Jon Hendricks (the jazz singer) showed me how to get high. He was very careful in how he smokes. He rolled hash in tiny balls and put that in his cigarette."

It would seem that Chong is in competition with Nelson and Snoop in the marijuana marketplace. However, as this is a new market breaking open they are more like fellow explorers.

"We don't have competition; we share," Chong says. "It's not about the money with us, never was. We don't need the money; I donate to charity. It's not a competition; they're my brothers."

It could be argued that this kind of business exists because of Chong. As one half of Cheech and Chong, the stage and film comedy duo, he was instrumental in putting stoner culture front and center to a wide audience. And it makes sense that his reach widens as marijuana becomes legally embraced.

"When legalization started happening I thought about ways to get into the business," Chong says. "I'm prohibited from selling bongs, so I thought about creating my own strain. I contacted the best growers who were growing organically and free of contaminants. There's lots of subpar stuff on the market, some stuff is bad."

Chong is not a grower. He contracts with growers to produce specific products. Chong's Choice strain offerings are Durban Haze (sativa), Grape Stomper (indica), and Blue Dream (hybrid). Everybody who grows or sells will tell you their stuff is good. It goes with the territory. I couldn't tell you how many people have told me that they do something special that nobody else does to grow marijuana that is better than what everybody else has. The reviews of Chong's Choice have mostly been positive, with the The 420 Times giving it the biggest all-out rave in writing: "Chong's Choice is certainly worthy of its namesake and should be considered the ultimate canna connoisseur experience."

Thecannabist.co wrote, "What they absolutely nailed out of the gate were the genetics, with diverse offerings both aesthetically and in terms of the high provided." However, the Cannabist qualified that the bud smoked a little harsh, and suggested more care in the curing process.

A blog of The San Francisco Chronicle posted: "Chong's Choice OG Kush is a serviceable, top-shelf cut of the best-selling hybrid strain."

I haven't tasted it myself, so my opinion will have to wait. But I have to tell you I'm pretty sympathetic toward a lot of stuff out there.

Chong has been showing up in Michigan regularly the last few years to make appearances at the Hash Bash, sponsored by BDT Smoke Shops in Hazel Park — where in 2015 he was given the key to the city by Mayor Jan Parisi. So it should come as no surprise that BDT will be one of the distributors when Chong's Choice comes to Michigan. It's not clear when that will be. My guess is it will be right around the time that recreational legalization kicks in and everybody knows what the law will allow.

Now that the law is changing regarding marijuana, BDT is rightly reaping the rewards that come from hanging in there for decades and nurturing the scene.

Chong is reaping similar rewards, and his biggest reward may be that he is still alive after bouts with prostate cancer in 2012 and rectal cancer in 2015. Chong threw everything there was at the cancers — lifestyle, diet, Simpson oil, surgery, energy healing, and radiation.

"I think cannabis kept my prostate in check for a good five years," Chong says. "Then the rectal treatment included radiation. ... Cannabis helped in my recovery."

It's the medical effects that blow Chong's mind these days. He says it's the most interesting thing about marijuana these days. I think it's interesting to him because that's where he is in his life right now. But regardless of what gets you there, you have arrived. So if illness is what brings you to medical marijuana, then you have arrived at medical marijuana.

As Chong said at the THC fest:

"My goal is to have cannabis recognized by the AMA (American Medical Association) as a viable medicine for various ailments, including epilepsy, MS, cancer, and who knows what else. That's my goal."

It looks like we're getting there. Let's hope they don't move the goalposts.

The THC Festival was a very cool event. Idris Nia, who I spoke to for my last column about the spiritual side of marijuana, was a DJ for the event. For anyone who hasn't attended one of these affairs, while there is no smoke in the air there, everything else is related to marijuana. Vendors display their wares, which include items for growers, items for processing the buds and making extracts, glassware and ingesting equipment, art, T-shirts, and caps. A few organizations had tables there to publicize their services, and there was a line to see the doctor for some who sought certifications.

One thing that's for certain is that there are plenty of people in the area who have already thrown their hats in the ring to be part of the marijuana economy. The two floors of vendors and the crowd that packed into the Roostertail proved that the marijuana economy already exists.

Not that it can't get bigger. Tommy Chong's meeting with potential distributors is another indicator. And while this wasn't part of the THC Festival, this past weekend's Conference by the Bay: Medical Marijuana Business Law Update in Traverse City thrown by the Michigan Cannabis Development Group is an indicator that this industry has taken off. There are still some bumpy roads ahead, but there is indeed a road to follow.

About The Author

Larry Gabriel

Larry Gabriel covers cannabis for Metro Times. He also writes the Detroit Watch in the monthly Michigan Cannabis Industries Report. Larry's chapter "Rebirth of Tribe" in the book Heaven Was Detroit, from jazz to hip-hop and beyond chronicles the involvement of Marcus Belgrave, Wendell Harrison, Harold McKinney,...
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