Free Tommy Chong!
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Early on the morning of February 24, 2003, the Pacific Palisades, CA, home of actor Tommy Chong was raided by federal officers. In classic "hey, man" fashion, Chong sleepily told the intruding officers that they must have the wrong house. The feds replied they most certainly had the right house, as well as a warrant to search it for glass pipes, of which they found a bunch, along with a pound of high-grade marijuana. When first asked if there were any pot on the property, Chong allegedly replied, "Of course; I'm Tommy Chong."
On September 11, 2003, Chong was sentenced for selling drug paraphernalia. Of the 55 people arrested and prosecuted in the bong sweep-officially dubbed "Operation Pipe Dreams" -- Chong was the only one with no prior convictions and is currently serving nine months in California's Taft federal prison. (Sort of federal, anyway: In the 90s, Taft became the first privately managed prison in America, and is run by the Wackenhut Corrections Corporation.)
It was Chong's first arrest. During years of smoking and advocating drug use, the only crime of which Chong had been found guilty was making The Corsican Brothers. Nor did Chong even run Chong's Bongs, the business in question. Although he pumped a lot of money into it and promoted the company, it was the brainchild of his son, Paris. Chong pleaded guilty to protect his wife and children from prosecution. Nobody thought that the 65-year-old father of five would serve jail time.
Stan Levenson, a veteran attorney with decades of experience arguing federal cases, was one of three lawyers retained by Mr. Chong during his federal trial in Pittsburgh.
"I thought here would be a client, a high-visibility client, presumably with the means to finance a defense, and it could be a fun case to try," he says. "It's an offensive prosecution. I don't understand the thinking behind bringing this kind of prosecution. Who benefits?"
Despite Levenson's enthusiasm, he never got to mount a defense.
"We were limited by Tommy's desire to shield his son and his wife from any criminal prosecution, so his instructions to us were, 'See if you can cut a deal for me to plead guilty so they will let my son and my wife alone.'"
Was Chong's public persona a factor in the trial?
"Absolutely. There would be no reason to [go after him] if he was [just] some insignificant individual. But here's the poster boy for marijuana. And doesn't this really, in the mind of somebody like Ashcroft, wouldn't this vindicate this whole prosecution?"
Delivering the government's colloquy in the case, prosecuting attorney Mary Houghton dramatically accused Chong of growing rich by "glamorizing the illegal use and distribution of marijuana and trivializing law-enforcement efforts to combat drug use." Obviously she hasn't seen any Cheech and Chong movies. There's not much glamour in two unemployed morons smoking dog shit because the pooch ate their stash.
With the war on drugs an ever more humiliating law-enforcement failure, why not settle for the ultimate symbol, the most concentrated form of stonerness itself, Tommy Chong?
But enough soapbox moping. According to the 2002 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, approximately 25.8 million Americans -- 11 percent of the total population -- smoke pot. There is power in that number. (Although it is almost certainly deflated. The poll involved government workers entering about 70,000 people's homes and asking them if they did drugs.)
Whatever the real number, here is my plan to put that power to use: On April 20, 2004, I call upon all Americans to stop smoking pot. Everyone. For one year. Setting 4/20 as a date will allow time for even the slackest stoners to get in gear, as well as make sure they don't forget the date. For 365 days, we will redirect the money we'd normally spend on marijuana to the trustworthy people at NORML headquarters in Washington, DC. That money would then translate into an enormous amount of political power. We're talking hundreds of millions of dollars.
When I told NORML's associate director Kris Krane about the idea, he advised moderation. "What I usually tell people that I meet at shows or rallies is to buy one less eighth and give the money to people who want to keep you out of jail." He was referring to the $25 NORML annual membership fee. Kris is a surprisingly energetic, quick talker -- so much so that at first I thought I had called the National Organization for the Reform of Crystal Meth Legislation by accident. But no, the man just gets very excited talking about weed.
NORML's budget varies from six to eight hundred thousand dollars a year, 40 to 50 percent of which comes from 8000 dues-paying members. Along with operating costs, that money goes into programs like their annual convention and lobbying efforts. Their PAC, called NORMLPAC, directs money to marijuana-friendly politicians.
I asked Kris how they'd react to the kind of windfall they could expect from my plan.
"We'd like to prove to our national leaders that the public is on our side when it comes to decriminalization by getting a voter initiative on the ballot in states like Oregon, Washington or California. Particularly what I'd like to see is an initiative on voter decriminalization in the Midwest, in states like Wisconsin and Michigan."
The decriminalization would come in degrees. NORML isn't gunning to make it completely legal in one big bang; at least at first, they just want to reduce sentences from jail to fines. The idea is to teach America to crawl before it can walk.
Some of my friends have had to quit getting high for one reason or another, and I can tell you what to expect if you sign on to my campaign. You will experience a marked decrease in your ability to enjoy music, movies, television, video games and food. Some of you may begin having strange, vivid dreams. Many will turn to heavy drinking, something I strongly caution against, as these people tend to become fat and slow. More important, you are more likely to write letters to Congressmen and editors when you're sharp, sober and irritable.
Tommy Chong is depending on us, and we are all Tommy Chong now.