Tommy Chong Has a Plan to Save the World

The cannabis and comedy legend talks about his surprising consumption habits, prison sunsets, and a creative way to deal with all that ocean plastic

Tommy Chong was an obvious celebrity guest to invite to the annual Emerald Cup, a cannabis competition, trade show, and music festival in Santa Rosa. (He was also the recipient of the prized Willie Nelson Award.)

For the cannacurious, Chong is most famous as half of the comedy duo Cheech and Chong, a partnership with Cheech Marin that dates back to the ’70s and continues today (they’re currently on hiatus while Cheech tends to a knee injury). Chong also made headlines back in 2003 when he was incarcerated for selling his Chong Glass brand of bongs and other weed accoutrements across state lines through the U.S. mail system. He was sentenced to nine months at Taft Correctional Institution in Bakersfield, and was later pardoned by President Barack Obama—an offer Chong ultimately refused to accept because he thought it was tantamount to admitting guilt.

Between tokes at his booth, he talked about watching prison sunsets, the mountains he plans to build in collaboration with starchitect Frank Gehry, his deep appreciation for Topanga Canyon, and the little known fact that he has a relatively low tolerance and isn’t actually a big smoker—or at least not for a member of Cheech and Chong.

Since cannabis became legal in California, what do you notice has changed or still needs to change?

Everybody is struggling to find their right path in the industry. There’s a lot of residual leftovers from black market days. There are systems that have to be changed, totally changed that are on both sides of the law. What’s happening right now, is that it’s getting over and under regulated as most new startups do. But in the end it will even out. It always does.

How have you noticed L.A. culture changing with the legalization of marijuana?

The culture of L.A., well, if you just look outside, you see clean air. When we grew up, when it was illegal, it was all smog. There was tons of smog. And the air was unhealthy. In L.A. they would have warnings that would say: Don’t go outside, the air is too unhealthy. They don’t have those warnings anymore. Is it a coincidence? It could be. But I think a lot of the advances we made in civilization, in legalization [are really reflected] in Los Angeles. Los Angeles is the Rome of the modern day. When in Rome, do as Rome do. And that’s what legalization in California is, it is promoting legalization around the world. You can look at Boulder, but everybody in the world looks at L.A. and that’s where it all is. We’re prescribing a healthier lifestyle with legalization.

It’s pretty next-level activism to refuse a presidential pardon, but it’s not always such an easy option for other people who have experienced incarceration around drug sentencing. What are your thoughts around supporting cannabis entrepreneurship with formerly incarcerated folks?

Right there is the beauty and the dangers of capitalism—it was a survival of the fittest and it is now again in a way that includes everyone. The minute it became legal, it’s like the bounty was taken off me. Now everybody really can get into the game. No you get people that prospered during the black market days when they were breaking the law. And you get people like me that were not really breaking the law as much as they were following their own beliefs that this is not a harmful substance. It’s a helpful substance. And it’s all coming together. It’s all good. I always look at everything as as a good sign.

What are the signs around cannabis with this current administration?

Even when Trump got elected, I always said, “Well, pot got legal!” So you trade off. Now it’s going to be ironic because he’s going to be impeached, and then that’s when it will be federally legal. And then the cycle will be completed. Marijuana has always put me on a very positive path because it is a gift from God. And when you recognize God in that way, your life cannot help but be better.

“Marijuana has always put me on a very positive path because it is a gift from God. And when you recognize God in that way, your life cannot help but be better.”

You were born in Canada and now you’re a U.S. citizen. As somebody who can vote in California and has a record, what does this upcoming election mean to you?

Everything! American civilization was based on racism right from the beginning. Even though we adopted the Constitution, it was still written by white people, white men. They were wise men for white men, and now that is changing.

Do you feel that it is changing for the better or for the worse? 

Racism is just ignorance. It’s just pure ignorance. Any kind of evil or hate is just ignorance. We’re reaching a point in our civilization, and I’m so glad I’m still here for it, where your knowledge will increase exponentially, like compound interest. We went from the computer that took forever and then you got the cell phone. We’ve got Alexa, we’ve got automatic cars, we’ve got electric cars. We’ve got windmills. You get all that stuff. And, we’ve got marijuana as a medicine! And as a recreational tool. How healthy is that?! The cops don’t have to put out roadblocks on Christmas anymore for the alcoholics. People were using alcohol and regular Joe’s were killing each other. You don’t see that in California now with the legalization of marijuana. We are in the Golden Age, and society is just getting better in that way.

Around Los Angeles what are your spots to reflect and enjoy a smoke?

After you’ve been in jail, every place is your favorite place. Because it is about where you’re allowed to go. I don’t have a favorite place anywhere anymore because of that. I have a lot of places that I want to visit and explore in the city. But actually, Topanga Canyon is a special place for me. I drive through it all every other day, and to me that is the reason I moved to California. That beautiful drive with the mountains, the terrain, the animals. With all people like to say negative about L.A., I love everything about living in L.A.

What’s your family life like these days? 

I’m married to a very beautiful, elusive wife. She’s like a wild bird. She comes into my life, and then she flies away. And then every once in a while she comes back. And then she flies away. And then I got my sons. I’ve got grandkids and great grandkids. I’m really enjoying being a grandpa. Grandpa don’t have to do shit. Just sit there and they talk in front of you. They say, “What do you think he wants to eat?” I don’t know. “Is he sleeping?” I don’t know.

Cannabis legalization seems to be attempting to be more representative of women and people of color, do you see that?

You see the white man, he just took over in name only. The world’s always been run by women and people of color. That’s who does all the dirty work. It’s just a natural evolution. Some of the best growers I know are women. There’s a girl in Colorado. She’s legendary as a grower. Women are successful everywhere you go, it is just about taking notice.

“The world’s always been run by women and people of color. That’s who does all the dirty work.”

Do you see yourself as a survivor of the War on Drugs?

Yes, I am. I was a part of it. The older I get, the more grateful I become. Because life is such a gift. It can be taken away at any time, any time, and I have lived that for everyone to see. Just to be able to have memories like I have. I’ve got an incredible memory.

You have an incredible memory? 

My memory is good, my brain is so good. And it is thanks to weed. It is all about weed. Our bodies are like computers. If you know what button or what app to hit, you can learn everything there is to know. And if you know how to get the energy source, you know how to recharge the batteries. I’ve evolved to the point where I can change my mind and change my whole being, just with my mind.

Can you share an example of how you do that? 

When I was in prison, I just reprogrammed my mind and I turned it into a religious retreat. I was already being treated like a monk [laughs]: led to my cell, told what to eat, when to get up. When I was in prison, for instance, I started these inexpensive but beautiful habits. Like, I had a habit of looking at the sunset. For a lot of people, the only sunsets they see is the one on a honeymoon. Because it meant something. Boaters always get their sunsets. You go boating so you can sit there and watch the sun set. But when I was in prison, I sat for every sunset for three months. I mean, I think I broke some kind of record. I don’t know what it is, but just sitting there watching the sunset and being able to take that time to look at the beauty that surrounds you. You’re getting all this energy, all this knowledge. I found I could learn so much from watching a fly in a window, watching a cat, watching the dogs. You learn so much and I had time for that.

You flipped the script on your punishment. 

Totally! And not only that, when you change your mind, you affect everybody around you. So the guards were my friends, they were part of the Sunset Crew. We’d all watch the sunset together. And when you do that, you improve your environment.

On a lighter note, what are you smoking these days? What is your daily or weekly budget? 

Well, I usually smoke whatever I can ever I can get my hands on, whatever is lying around when I feel like a smoke because I got weed all over my house. I look around at what has been brought in for me and think, oh, I’ll try this one. You know, the actual truth is that I’m not a big smoker.

What do you mean you’re not a big smoker? That’s not what anyone expects to hear from Tommy Chong. 

I’m human! I got a low tolerance. When I was in jail, I never smoked. I never smoked for three years. And whenever I felt like getting high, I would just think about it. And boom, I’d get high. I’ve never had a competitive nature. I always had more of a sharing one. You have to remember I always had a partner that I could laugh with. You know, that’s why Cheech and I got along so good. We found each other and that we could make each other laugh and we could do things to make the world laugh. When Cheech and I started doing comedy there were a lot of great guys: Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, and then there was little Cheech and Chong, but we were there sharing with them.

What are you working on while you and Cheech are on hiatus? 

I’m actually working on a project to save the world. I’m serious. I’ve been working on it for a long time—but in my mind. I was trying to figure out a way to deal with the plastic in the ocean. And then I also wanted to figure out a way to provide water from the ocean, to desalinate the water so it can be used on land. So I came up with a plan combining both problems.

What’s your plan?

To create a mountain out of the rubble, instead of burying it and dumping it in the ocean. Use the rubble to build a mountain. Like all mountains, it will be populated with trees and rocks, and then pipe the water up to the top of the mountain. And then when the water comes down from the mountain, we go through the filtering systems until it is totally clean. And then when it hits the bottom, it is clean water we can create lakes and rivers with.

Where are you at with the project? 

I am taking my plan to architects like Frank Gehry. I go to Frank with my plan about what I’m doing. Now, I’m working on building a model of the mountain, just a prototype. I want to sell it to the world, to the people. The mountain itself will be like a refuge for animals and humans. We have to live together. And the homeless will become nomads, just traveling around. I want to create a series of these mountains around where they’re needed. So you solve the refugee problem, too. People, when they’re traveling or migrating, they do it for food, for a job. It’s not to migrate to piss off some rich guy. You’re migrating to feed your family, to get out of wars, get out of danger. And we have to realize that because, you know, we’re only here for one reason and that’s to help each other.

That’s very relevant to Los Angeles, particularly to include homelessness and refugees in your plans.

I asked Frank Gehry about homelessness. I said, “What’s your take on the homeless, Frank?” And he says: You’ve got to look at the Middle East. The ancient Middle East because you’ve always had homeless, but they weren’t called homeless. They were called nomads. They were called wanderers. They’re called travelers. They were called campers. These days people spend money to go camping, to be homeless. And so the same people when they go to sleep on the street, they are not dummies, they might be on to a pretty good business idea.

RELATED: Revisiting the L.A. Locations from Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke 40 Years Later

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