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Tommy Chong gets the joint

Saturday, September 13, 2003

Thirty years ago, Cheech and Chong did a skit in which an unctuous lawyer and his dope-addled client comically plead for leniency but end up proving the defendant is guilty.

Did this memory flash back upon Tommy Chong last week as he stood before a federal judge for selling bongs?

"The whole time," Chong said.

Then, he stepped off the elevator at the federal courthouse and assumed his newest role: street mime. Chong answered every reporter's question by pretending to zipper his mouth shut. Chong didn't even dare autograph a copy of "Up in Smoke" for a fan who awaited him on Grant Street. Best not to further provoke the authorities.

"He's being sentenced for making jokes," Chong's wife, Shelby, complained. There is something to that argument. Chong is 65 years old and, in a large sense, U.S. District Judge Arthur Schwab sentenced a passe world view to prison.

Years after it was fashionable, Chong's persona was still wrapped up in the dope-smoking loser, zagging down the L.A. freeway in a derelict van. Where Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman were the political face of the '60s and '70s, Cheech and Chong were the indefensibly amusing embodiment of its libertarianism.

Once the act broke up, Chong's old partner, Cheech Marin, played a cop on "Nash Bridges." Tommy Chong started a glass company that sold bongs with his face on them.

After his guilty plea in May, Chong joked with reporters about how the case could make a good movie. Neither Schwab nor the U.S. attorney's office grasped the irony. Chong became the first defendant in Operation Pipe Dreams -- every battle in the culture war needs a good title -- to get jail time.

Dope dealers who are heroes, police officers made to look like clueless martinets, and teenagers lost in a chemical amusement that somehow lets them see past the hypocrisy of their elders, all were the stuff of Tommy Chong's comedy. He was a performer, but did the job so well that when the time came for Chong to convince a judge he wasn't the character he portrayed, he had already typecast himself into a jail sentence.

"It's never been my intention to break the law. I got carried away," Chong told the judge. "I got carried away with my character. I did become that character for a while, but not anymore."

As proof, Chong cited, among other things, the fact that he no longer smokes dope, plans to work to keep youth off drugs and has learned salsa dancing.

"It's a Latin American dance. It's awesome," he told Schwab, who then assigned Chong a spot in the next conga line to Lompoc.

It is hard to know which is the greater harbinger of the end times here: that the drug laws have, at retirement age, finally nabbed Tommy Chong or that Tommy Chong has responded by joining the other side.

"He has remorse and respect for the law," said Mike Nasatir, one of three lawyers who sat with him at the defense table. This is painful. Tommy Chong's entire stage persona was predicated on blithe disregard for law. It is what made him wonderful to kids locked in schools and chafing under the regime of authorities who piously invoked rules as an excuse for not thinking.

Federal authorities who winked at the bong trade for decades could have sent agents, or even certified letters, warning they would no longer ignore the matter. Many would have shut down.

Instead, a federal task force mail-ordered some product and, voila, Tommy Chong became a celebrity centerpiece pleading for mercy and promising that he is no longer himself.

The meaning of Chong's celebrity did not escape prosecutors. Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary McKeen Houghton invoked the "Up in Smoke" movies (the ads back then said "See this movie stoned!") and how they trivialized drug use.

"These films will be with us forever and children will rent these films forever," she told Schwab.

Yes, the movies will be with us forever. But Tommy Chong, at least as we know him, died on the floor of Courtroom 3 Thursday morning. What exited was a beaten old man, forced to renounce himself to save the little bit that was left after the party ended.


Dennis Roddy can be reached at droddy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1965.

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