The elimination of Cheech Marin on the most recent episode of Rachel vs. Guy: Celebrity Cook-Off brought into focus what an improbably beloved cultural touchstone Mr. Marin has become. It also served as a reminder of the strange story of his one-time movie partner, Tommy Chong.
I’ve never been a fan of the Cheech & Chong films. I much prefer Busby Berkeley, Rogers & Astaire or the Marx Brothers as recreational viewing. Still, Cheech & Chong were very much part of the cultural landscape, the background noise, while growing up in the 1970s. Cheech and Chong broke up as an act in 1985. It was in all the newspapers but it didn’t make much of an impression on me except in a passing kind of way. I enjoyed Cheech’s solo film, Born in East L.A. but I was most aware of Chong from his role of Leo Chingkwake, owner of a local Photo Hut, in That ‘70s Show and as the father of actress Rae Dawn Chong. Then Tommy Chong was arrested.
Chong was asleep with his wife at their home in the Pacific Palisades at 5:30 in the morning when he was awoken by a squadron of armed, helmeted, people banging at his door and windows. When he answered the door officers with the DEA entered his home with a search warrant.
What they were looking for was evidence to use in Court that Tommy Chong was selling bongs. Of course they already knew he was selling bongs. Tommy Chong’s son, Paris, a glass artist had started a company, Chong Glass - Nice Dreams, here in the USA that sold glass water pipes as well as bamboo pipes carved by his father who had supplied the start-up money for the operation. The water pipes and smoking devices produced by Nice Dreams were of the best quality and had been featured as art in various shows.
The sting operation that captured Tommy Chong was part of a $12 million dollar law enforcement program given the code name Operation Pipe Dreams that netted 55 individuals convicted of selling “drug paraphernalia” over the Internet. The DEA had set up a fake Head Shop in Arlington, Texas and Tommy Chong made a celebrity appearance where he signed bongs made by Chong Glass. During a break an undercover agent approached him and asked Chong, “if my pipes were really used to smoke pot and why my bongs or any bongs were superior to other pipes. Of course, I was honest and told him everything. I wasn’t worried about speaking so freely because I hadn’t been mirandized, nor had I done anything wrong. Pro that I am, I spoke directly into the hidden camera/recorder in his backpack. You see what smoking pot will do to you?”
Tommy Chong accepted a plea deal that spared his son and wife from facing any charges and served nine months in minimum security Federal prison owned and operated by a private foreign company. He was sentenced on September 11, 2003. “I felt more like Nelson Mandela than the drug kingpin they were trying to make me out to be,” Mr. Chong recalled. While in prison, Chong spent his time gardening, fasting, walking around the outdoor track, making pottery, including clay bongs that he immediately destroyed, and writing a rather remarkable book, The I Chong, published by Simon Spotlight Entertainment in 2006.
Operation Pipe Dreams was the baby of then U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan, a George W. Bush appointee who later went on to disgrace herself in the scandal associated with the removal of U.S. Attorneys who refused to go along with political prosecutions. The Judge who oversaw Tommy Chong’s case, Arthur Schwab, another G.W. Bush appointee, later had to step down from presiding over the politically motivated prosecution of Dr. Cyril Wecht, a case brought by Mary Beth Buchanan. Ms. Buchanan stepped as a U.S. Attorney down in 2008 and in 2010 she unsuccessfully ran for Congress.
Mary Beth Buchanan granted an interview to CBS affiliate KDKA in Pittsburgh in which she was asked what was her biggest regret? Ms. Buchanan responded that her biggest regret was offering a plea deal to Tommy Chong to which Mr. Chong responded, “I'm honored to be Mary Beth's only regret. Now does she regret going after me? Or does she regret that I never got enough time? I tend to think she wishes she'd never heard my name. I have become her legacy. Mary Beth Loose Cannon is now looking for a job. She blew her last job busting me. Karma is so sweet! She's looking for a work while Cheech and I start our second multi-million dollar tour thanks to the publicity she created for us! Thank you Mary Beth - may you find peace and happiness in your search for your soul."
After his release Tommy Chong went back to touring as a stand- up comedian and still does some acting and voice-over work but he has not achieved the kind of cuddly elder statesman status as his former partner Chong who he toured with again after coming out of prison. Tommy Chong may not have been embraced back into the popular fold because of his continued outspoken advocacy of marijuana legalization and drug policy reform even though Cheech Marin’s “Special Brownies” were greeting with an approving wink and a nod from everyone involved before ultimately being eliminated for not being able to cook a grilled cheese sandwich as well as Lou Diamond Phillips or Joey Fatone.
Still it is instructive to remember the prosecution of Tommy Chong and the millions of dollars and the amount of resources expended to keep a 66-year-old man locked up for the crime of selling beautiful smoking devices, especially when Newt Gingrich is promising that if he’s elected President he will run the U.S. Justice Department, and the Attorney’s in it, just like George W. Bush used to do.