"The government always used to say, 'We don't know the real bad effects of marijuana. We've never been able to test it,'" Tommy Chong says in the perma-high drawl that made him a counterculture legend as half of Cheech and Chong. "Well, I'm a walking guinea pig. I've been testing it for well over 50 years. I came in fifth on Dancing With the Stars at 76. This old stoner waltzed right by professional athletes because of the marijuana."
In the decade since the comedian spent nine months in jail for sending bongs across state lines in 2004, Chong has become more active than ever in weed advocacy. Today, he is hanging out in his Los Angeles office early in the morning before going to the gym to speak to Rolling Stone about how legal marijuana has found itself in a state of limbo in our nation's capital.
Last year, Washington, D.C. citizens voted in a law that decriminalized weed in a way similar to how Colorado, Alaska and Washington state have done so, but a last-minute provision by Republicans – prohibiting the District from using tax dollars to "enact" the bill – has limited its efficacy. Adults are allowed to possess a maximum of two ounces of pot and grow up to six marijuana plants but the law prohibits its sale and regulation, according to The Washington Post.
Chong finds the whole situation absurd, if not for the fact it seems behind the times. "It's the pot that opened my mind 20 years ago," he says. "When I got high for the first time, when I was 18 years old, I got visions of how one could prosper in this world. Everything just got so clear." Besides, Chong says, pot isn't that dangerous: "You can't OD on marijuana," he says. "People have tried." He laughs.
What's your take on the current legal-weed situation in Washington, D.C.?
Typical Washington. You can smoke it, but you can't buy it and you can't sell it. It's so stupid. These guys are so lame. It's a money game. It's all about a paycheck for Washington, and the rich people are getting people in office that'll keep everybody's mind on everything else but raising taxes.
So you think that this legislation was written in a way to distract people?
Yes, totally. Looking at the political situation, it's self-serving for so many people, including the so-called righteous right. People are just doing things just for money.
Are there any circumstances in which the government should restrict marijuana use?
They can't. We've proven that. Look at the little kid with epilepsy. If the law was in effect, the mom would go to jail for giving a minor the drug. There's no restrictions. You can't patent a plant; it's a gift for everybody. The earth belongs to the Lord and the fullness within. No one can own it.
Marijuana is a perfect medicine. It replaces so many dangerous psychotic medicines that we're giving kids to calm them down. It's a safe sleep aid. It's been proven to kill cancer cells, and that alone should be put on a whole different pedestal. And you can see the problem there: Because it does cure cancer, it threatens all of these expensive cancer procedures, like the chemotherapy and all of these drugs that aren't covered by insurance and that cost people a ton of money.
You spent nine months in jail for mailing a bong. How did incarceration change you?
I knew it was going to happen. I asked the universe. I said, "I need something to revitalize my career," and the next thing you know, I hear the door locking behind me [laughs].
Actually, I had just one bad half hour in jail. It was the first night, and they locked the door, and I'm in this little bunk bed in this little cubicle. I'm in jail with 200 other men, and they're making all kinds of weird sounds: farting and groaning and crying and moaning. It was like a jungle. Reality set in, and I started getting claustrophobia. Then, all of a sudden, this calmness overtook me. It was almost like somebody whispering in my ear saying, "You're going to enjoy this. Relax."
Were your fellow inmates happy to see you?
Oh, I got a hero's welcome. First of all, the guards, who looked like Nazis with long overcoats, met me at the gate. One guard says, "OK. I'll drive you over to the camp behind the prison," and as soon as I got in the truck he goes, "I'm your biggest fan! I got these records, can you sign them?" And then when I got to the camp, I had a big welcoming committee. They showed me how to get bedding and pick up my prison uniform. It was like being in the army. The place I was at was like a rest home for gangsters. I've been in resorts that weren't as plush as this one: It had a running track, a football field, a bocce ball court, tennis courts, it had everything. I met the "Wolf of Wall Street" [Jordan Belfort]. I helped him write a book. I was busy every day. I was up at 5:30 every morning and I had a nap at two in the afternoon. The time went by so fast.
"I've got so much weed in the house now, I could start a dispensary."
Did jail change your smoking habits?
No, not at all. I was always a lightweight smoker. I got into weightlifting real early in my life, about 16 years old. I quit smoking when I was 21, so I was in really good shape and pretty healthy. All that "Cheech and Chong" stuff, that was an act. I never was that character.
I picture you smoking every day.
No, not every day. But I've got so much weed in the house now, I could start a dispensary [laughs]. In fact, I am a dispensary to a lot of my friends – medically speaking, too, because I'm a big believer in the medical benefits of marijuana, which helped me with the cancer, which I got in prison. The prison was built over a toxic waste dump and when I went in there I was totally healthy and when I came out, I had prostate cancer. I treated it with hash oil.
So what do you think is left for weed to become totally legal?
The feds have to reschedule it and say that it has medical value. That's all they have to do. I think one of the reasons that they want to keep it illegal is because the way it's going to reverse a lot of convictions. Just like mine. They convicted me of a felony for the dastardly crime of shipping a bong across a state line. That was my crime. Now I've become a felon and have to go get searched every time I go through the airport.
It's like the voting-rights issue or the gay-marriage thing: It goes a lot deeper than just not being arrested for the crime. The laws and courts have taken advantage of this. The bottom line is, it's one of the last racially motivated laws on the books. Once that's gone, then we're looking at true equality.
Did you always expect that weed would become legal in your lifetime?
Yeah, I did. I knew it was good for you. I've gotten high with every Beatle except Paul – and he's the only one that really was a pothead – and I saw top athletes smoking it. I would work out with Arnold Schwarzenegger when he first came over to America, when he was the golden boy of bodybuilding, and he was probably one of the healthiest guys on the planet. If someone offered him soda, he'd spit it out rather than drink it, but he would smoke a joint because he knew it was healthy. Also, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played basketball eight years past his prime because he was and still is a big, big pothead due to migraine headaches. Kareem and I shared a lot of weed over the years. So I knew it was healthy.
Who else have you smoked with?
I had the honor and the privilege of being around different, great people who smoked, like Wes Montgomery, the guitar player; he was a big pothead and he was a genius on guitar. And then on the other side of the coin, Jimi Hendrix. I was with Jimi one night and he wouldn't smoke pot, but he would be in the bathroom for a very long time, sort of incoherent and nodding off on heroin. He was a junkie. That's why I never went near heroin, because I've seen people like Hendrix, who was incredibly talented, cut his life short because of the stupid drug that kills you.
And I saw what cocaine did, like to Sly and the Family Stone: I knew Sly when he was just starting out. We had a band, and Sly had a band and we crossed paths in San Francisco, but I saw what cocaine did to him, so I stayed away from it and heroin. But I got totally involved in the marijuana, and here I am today, 76 years old, kicking butt on Dancing With the Stars [laughs]. And that's all because of my weight-training and pot use.
"George Harrison and I smoked up a bunch of times."
Before we move on, tell me about getting high with John Lennon.
With John Lennon, that was weird. We were at a party at [record producer] Lou Adler's house, and all the hippies were there, the Stones, Mick Jagger and the boys, and John Lennon, Rod Stewart. I was looking for a place to get high, and Lou said, "Use the bedroom." So I went in there and lit up this big, old, smelly joint – the real stinky kind – and something caught my eye. There was a guy sitting on the floor by the bed, and it was John Lennon. So I walked over and I offered him a toke, and he refused because of his immigration problems. So he was sitting there in a bit of a funk, but on the floor. It was pretty funny. Then I turn around and Rod Stewart walks in and was looking in the mirror, fluffing his hair up, so I offered Rod Stewart a toke and he turned it down because of his throat. "I've got to watch my voice." So, even though John never smoked any, I always tell people that I got high with John, because I did get high.
What about George Harrison and Ringo Starr?
Well, Ringo was always trying to get over alcohol. He was always on some kind of wagon. He was so sweet. He'd always give you big hugs and kisses. He was kind of weird, but again, I got high with him and Keith Moon. I think Keith Moon was there and Ringo, but Ringo turned it down because he was on the wagon. So again, I smoked in his presence.
But George, George and I smoked up a bunch of times. I met George at this hippie party way out in Malibu. It was really funny because, remember Tony Dow from Leave It to Beaver? He was Wally. He was at the party, too. So, I had the joint, I handed it to George, George took a toke, handed it back to me, and I looked and there's Tony Dow, Wally [laughs]. He's waiting for me to hand it to him. And I couldn't resist, I said, "Gee, Wally, does the Beaver know about this?" [Laughs] And he gave me this disgusted look, like, "C'mon man, get off of that shit," but he smoked up. I got high with George a bunch of times. And George played on a Cheech and Chong record one time, "Basketball Jones." That whole intro is him. He was a real beautiful guy.
While we're talking about Cheech and Chong's music, what is your favorite "Earache My Eye" cover?
Korn's. That was Cheech's favorite guy.
Yeah, that was a good tune. It was written by a Canadian guitarist named Gaye Delorme. He plays guitar on the tune. I wrote the lyrics and Gaye wrote the music. That was trip, too, because he was staying with Cheech at the time, and Cheech was dating Joni Mitchell – or at least he went out with Joni Mitchell one time – and there was Joni Mitchell and David Geffen, and Gaye Delorme came out of the bedroom, and he said, "Listen," and he played the riff. He was playing this standard guitar that was made in Canada, and he was trying to sell one to Joni and Geffen shot it down. He didn't like the guitar; he found it too tinny.
Another funny story, I saw Geffen years later, but he never saw me. I went in to a plastic surgeon to get some work done on myself, and the doctor was kind of star-struck, telling me about all of the different patients and how David Geffen is in the recovery room. "You wanna see him?" And I went in there and David Geffen's totally out, he's laying there with his new nose [laughs]. It was pretty funny.
You got back together with Cheech in 2008 after decades apart. How are things between you now?
Oh, excellent. Cheech kind of went his way into the Chicano art area. And for a while there he actually doing anti-drug commercials, trying to get into the Don Johnson area [acting on Nash Bridges]. But we're back and he'll never live down the "Cheech and Chong" persona no more than I can. And neither one of us wants to.
If anything from the stories that you've been telling is true, weed does not affect memory loss.
No, I mean it's selective. At times, I can't remember my kid's name. But I'll remember a girlfriend that I had 50 years ago. It'll pop in my mind. It's very selective.
With pot, you've got to go on the ride wherever it's taking you. You've just got to relax and enjoy it. My Christmas present to myself this year was a massage chair. My favorite thing to do is smoke a little bit, get in my massage chair, turn on the TV to usually the greatest hits, "Motown's 25 years" – I'll listen to that because I don't have to watch it – and I just lay there and get rubbed and bounced and massaged and it's the greatest thing. I just lay back and just enjoy my life.
"We get socks of weed given to us. I can't refuse it."
Now that pot is legal in Colorado and Washington State, has touring there been any different?
It's so much fun. But in most venues, they don't let you smoke on the stage. Fire laws, you know? You're not allowed to smoke anywhere. The only place we were allowed to smoke up was Santa Cruz. My wife, Shelby, opens the show and she doesn't smoke but she got such a contact high that she did one of the best shows ever in Santa Cruz because the place was literally filled with smoke. It was like the van in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
People give us presents all the time. We get socks of weed now given to us. I can't refuse it. I don't care how much weed I've gotten. I've got a conservation habit, like, if I end up with a roach I don't throw it away – I put it in my pocket. It's so silly. My son and I grew about 20 plants on the roof and when we were trimming them, some buds would fall on the floor and my son would walk on them. To me, each little flower means a moment's pleasure somewhere, so I would scrounge and pick up all the buds off the floor. I still got those habits. I can't break them.
Since you're a light smoker, is it weird for people to bring you weed?
I made a rule: I never get high with what they give me. You never know what's in it. Cheech got burned a few times where it was a little more than what he expected. When I was on the road by myself, I used to give all the weed to the opening acts. They loved me.
I've asked the questions I had. Is there anything else you wanted to add about anything?
Oh man, just shut me up or I'll talk forever. That's another pot thing.
In that case, one last question: Is Dave there, man?
Dave was just here, knocked on the door and left you some weed.
He waved and said goodbye.