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Actor Tommy Chong gets nine months for selling pot pipes

Friday, September 12, 2003

By Torsten Ove, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

After describing himself as a former marijuana user who beat drugs by learning to dance to salsa, 65-year-old actor Tommy Chong told a federal judge yesterday that he's now a role model for young people in Los Angeles and wants to help them stay off drugs.

Actor Tommy Chong arrives at the Federal Courthouse, Downtown, yesterday. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.


He and his lawyers were hoping for a community service sentence as punishment for distributing thousands of bongs and marijuana pipes online through his California company, Nice Dreams Enterprises.

But Chong, famous for such movies as "Up in Smoke" with longtime partner Cheech Marin, is going to prison instead.

U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab yesterday gave him nine months in a federal lockup and fined him $20,000.

As part of the sentence, Chong forfeited his Internet domain name, Chongglass.com, along with $103,514 in cash and all of the drug paraphernalia seized by federal agents during a raid Feb. 24.

He'll be allowed to self-report to prison, probably to a facility nearest his Pacific Palisades, Calif., home.

The case against him was part of "Operation Pipe Dreams," a national investigation of drug paraphernalia distributors that began in Pittsburgh during the prosecution of Akhil Kumar Mishra and his wife, Rajeshwari, who ran two head shops Downtown in the 1990s.

In February some 55 people were arrested and head shops and distributors across the country were shut down. Chong wasn't arrested at the time, but his business, which employed several glass blowers, was among those raided.

U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan, who appeared in court for the hearing yesterday, said the sentence was significant because it tells the public that "there are consequences for violating the law, even if the violator is a well-known entertainer like Thomas Chong."

Chong pleaded guilty in May.

After his plea, he joked with the news media about putting the criminal case in his next movie with Cheech Marin.

The U.S. attorney's office pointed to those comments to show that Chong, far from being apologetic, was making light of the case and might exploit it for money.

When reporters asked him for comment this time, he said only "not a word."

In court, he said plenty.

Chong, whose full name is Thomas B. Kin Chong, apologized for his conduct and said he had tried to make amends by instructing young people in inner-city L.A. to dance and learn about the movie industry, saying he has a "natural ability to teach."

He also said anti-drug commercials don't work on young people and he asked for the chance to "make a difference" by using his celebrity to help them stay sober.

"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."

Federal prosecutors indicated they weren't entirely convinced.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary McKeen Houghton pointed out, for example, that when agents raided his home they found close to a pound of marijuana.

She also said Chong had made a career of glamorizing pot-smoking and capitalized on his status in making personal appearances at head shops across the United States, where he promoted his line of bongs and pipes with his picture on them.

In addition, he advertised the paraphernalia on his company's Web site and on his personal Web site, tommychong.com. Houghton said Chong "used his public image to promote this crime" and marketed his products to children.

Chong and his lawyers had previously asked Schwab to postpone sentencing so they could explore alternatives like community service, but the judge said "no." They asked again yesterday and again the judge said "no."

Schwab actually gave Chong a bit of a break. Under sentencing guidelines, he could have sentenced him to a year in prison and a $250,000 fine.

But he also could have let Chong serve part of his term in a halfway house or on home detention. He refused to do either, saying the prison term was "appropriate."

Chong admitted to distributing 7,500 bongs and marijuana pipes on the Internet through Nice Dreams, a family company that was named for one of his movies.

He also entered a guilty plea for the company, which did business as Chong Glass in Gardena, Calif. The corporation is now defunct.


Torsten Ove can be reached at tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.

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