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Chong Family Values

Photo by Keith Srakocio/AP

Sometime in the pre-dawn dark of February 24, Tommy Chong and his wife, Shelby, were awakened by determined knocking on the door of their Pacific Palisades home. When their visitors announced themselves as police, the Chongs assumed the cops were chasing some neighborhood prowler. The couple quickly surmised otherwise after Tommy opened the door and more than a dozen members of the Drug Enforcement Agency poured in with guns drawn. Although the feds, accompanied by some Los Angeles Police Department cops, would reportedly find a pound of marijuana, the real objects of their search were bongs made by the Chong Glass company, a plant located in Gardena, 24 miles away.

That winter Monday would be a busy day for Attorney General John Ashcroft’s Justice Department, which, in the middle of its highly self-publicized war on terrorism, found itself with enough time and badges to raid 55 individuals and head-shop businesses under an obscure statute banning the sale of drug paraphernalia. No one at the Palisades house was arrested that day, but two months later the government would charge Tommy Chong with one count of conspiracy to distribute drug paraphernalia. Suddenly, at the age of 65, Tommy Chong, who had never been arrested in his life, faced a felony conviction and jail time. Stranger still, Tommy Chong was not the owner of Chong Glass and its Nice Dreams line of smoking pipes.

The biggest irony, of course, is that Chong had become famous, with partner Cheech Marin, during the 1970s as half of the stoner comedy team Cheech and Chong, which began as a live club act in Chong’s native Canada and became immensely popular through American tours and record albums. Elliptical, dope-referenced films like Up in Smoke and Nice Dreams later established the pair’s movies as the counterculture’s answer to the Road films of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. While Cheech was always the frenetic and voluble East L.A. vato, Tommy’s “Man” character was almost incoherently mellow; the shared quest of both characters, however, was a Homeric search for the next bud — and to escape the clutches of the Keystone Narcs who invariably pursued them.

But today Chong begins the third month of a nine-month stretch at Kern County’s Taft Correctional Institute, which, in the 1990s, became one of the first federal prisons to be privatized. (Taft is “owned” by the Wackenhut Corrections Corp., a name that seems to belong in a Cheech-and-Chong film.) Tommy has a janitorial job at the fenceless minimum-security facility.

“He felt like Moses going into prison,” says daughter Precious Chong, “but the reality sank in and made him sad. He’s got a good outlook, though — it’s like a spiritual retreat for him, and he goes on walks.”

The 30-something Precious is an actress, who, on the morning of the raid, was shopping for a tape recorder so she could study Irish dialect for a role in Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa.

“I called my parents’ place from Best Buy,” she recalls, “and a voice said, ‘Chong residence.’ I really thought it was one of my brother’s friends. And I said, ‘Is my mom there?’ and the voice said, ‘She can’t talk to you now — she’ll call you back.’”

“They always come when it’s dark, to scare you,” says Shelby. “They came running in with guns and vests — it was funny. When they wouldn’t let me leave the house, I said, ‘Excuse me, I need my Starbucks!’”

The Chongs are a tight-knit family whose various members have appeared in Tommy’s films and whose five children have been exposed to the arts, the entertainment industry and travel abroad. Tommy and Shelby have been together nearly 35 years and during the last nine have hit the road together as a comedy act in their own right. Shelby spoke to me by phone from Kansas City, where she had just finished her first night as a solo act. Precious, too, had recently finished a West Hollywood run of her own solo act, The Porcelain Penelope Show, much of which dealt with her father’s travails.

“He really misses my mom,” Precious says. “They go out to movies every night or salsa dance. Now he doesn’t have that routine.”

 

Chong Glass was the idea of Tommy’s 29-year-old son, Paris, who describes himself as an entrepreneur who plans on becoming a lawyer someday.

“In ’99 I’d just come back from Canada and was living with my parents,” he says. “A lot of glass blowers were approaching my family to use their names to start a company. I thought, Why not do this myself?, and so I started Nice Dreams with one glass blower working out of an apartment, and my father investing the money.”

 

Paris soon discovered the world of glass blowing to be an insular, self-conscious culture whose artisans are concentrated in the Pacific Northwest. The son wanted his company to produce high-end pipes that would be collectible works of art instead of the mass-produced crack pipes found in most head shops. He began hiring experienced craftspeople at $25 to $30 per hour, but ended up keeping only a handful and having them train local laborers to do the same work. Eventually he employed 25 Pyrex-glass blowers who produced about 100 pipes a day in Chong Glass’ 7,500-square-foot shop near the Harbor Freeway.

He also had lawyers check state and local statutes and was assured that Nice Dreams was safe from any kind of prosecution. Paris and his business manager attended closed trade shows in Las Vegas sponsored by Contemporary Tobacco Accessories and, after a few years, won grudging respect within what he calls “a small, weird industry” even though Nice Dreams would never turn a profit. Then, three years into his venture, an attorney addressing one of the Vegas trade shows alerted the gathering to the 1986 federal statute governing pipes and other drug paraphernalia — a statute that superseded state laws.

“He said it’s so technical it’s virtually impossible not to break the law,” Paris Chong recalls. “But I was so invested in the business by then, and after 9/11 no one thought they [the government] would take the time and money to do anything about it. Then I got the nightmare call at 6 in the morning.”

 

“Operation Pipe Dreams,” as the government dubbed its commando raids on head shops and accessory makers, used as its battering ram Title 21, Section 863(a), of the U.S. Code, which, among other things, makes it a crime “to sell or offer for sale drug paraphernalia.” This statute was a study in taxidermy collecting dust until 1994, when the Supreme Court, in Posters ’N’ Things v. United States, ruled that head-shop owners did not have to know that their smoking pipes, roach clips and coke spoons were being used for illicit purposes to be prosecuted. Still, most vendors thought they could get around the ruling by creatively renaming their products, so that bongs suddenly became “tobacco pipes.”

Ashcroft’s Department of Justice did not find many takers among state law-enforcement agencies as it prepared its ban-the-bong crusade and filed most of the cases in willing Iowa and in western Pennsylvania, whose U.S. attorney, Mary Beth Buchanan, received her appointment from the Bush administration days before 9/11. Buchanan, who has ridden a meteoric career prosecuting child-pornography and white-collar crimes, has become a point person for the DOJ’s anti-drug war and for Ashcroft’s decrees that U.S. prosecutors and judges embrace “upward departure” when it comes to sentencing guilty defendants. (She is currently pressing a high-profile porn prosecution against North Hollywood’s Extreme Associates.)

“These were businesses in business to sell illegal products,” Buchanan told me by phone. “We didn’t treat Thomas Chong any different.” She explained the logic of going after Tommy rather than Paris. “Tommy Chong was the more responsible corporate officer because he financed and marketed the product.”

The first shot in Operation Pipe Dreams was actually fired three years ago in Pittsburgh, during the Clinton administration, when the government successfully prosecuted Akhil Kumar Mishra and his wife, Rajeshwari, whose two head shops sold drug paraphernalia in the city’s downtown.

“I was very aware of which communities not to sell to,” Paris Chong says. “I had told our sales people at the time we could not sell to Pittsburgh or anywhere in western Pennsylvania.”

But federal agents, posing as head-shop owners from Pittsburgh’s neighboring Beaver County, had pleaded with him to sell them his pipes through the mail to a fictitious shop in Beaver Falls. Not only that, but Paris says another agent, pretending to be a head-shop customer in Texas, asked Tommy Chong, during an in-store appearance on behalf of Nice Dreams, if the company’s pipes were good for smoking marijuana. Chong didn’t hesitate to answer yes — a reply that would be used against him in court. So far, Chong has drawn the severest sentence of all those swept up by Operation Pipe Dreams.

“I got the distinct impression that Tommy Chong was to be an example,” says Pittsburgh attorney Stanton Levenson, who represented Chong at his hearing. “I believe when this is over he will be the only defendant of the 55 without previous convictions who will do jail time.”

Levenson is a veteran criminal lawyer who considers himself on good terms with Pittsburgh’s federal prosecutors, but he sensed something different about them the moment he stepped into the courtroom to represent Chong.

 

“They were all rigid,” he says, “because Ashcroft has pretty much tied their hands and made the attorneys’ offices homogenous, inflexible. [Prosecutor] Mary Houghton definitely seemed more aggressive and forceful in this case.”

Levenson, in a phone interview, said he had been surprised by the government’s indictment of Chong. “We never see this kind of case on a federal level.”

According to Levenson, the deal he struck with the prosecutors allowed them to prosecute Tommy Chong and Chong Glass (effectively shutting it down), in exchange for leaving wife Shelby, who had signed the family’s loan checks, and Paris alone. Tommy cooperated with the government and was the first of Operation Pipe Dreams’ defendants to plead guilty. But while the feds told Levenson they were not necessarily seeking jail time, their legal body language said otherwise.

“We didn’t ask the judge for anything,” Buchanan says. “Nine months is right in the middle of the sentencing guideline range.”

The family clung to the possibility of leniency.

“We’d hoped he’d get house arrest,” Precious says, “and joked about what exactly that would change, because my dad is such a homebody. He’s always puttering or doing woodwork.”

But Mary Houghton and Mary Beth Buchanan, who delivered the government’s colloquy at the hearing when Chong pleaded guilty, had other ideas.

Chong, Houghton contended, had become wealthy by “glamorizing the illegal use and distribution of marijuana and trivializing law-enforcement efforts to combat drug use.” (Houghton did not respond to repeated interview requests.)

After she finished, Chong got his nine months, forfeited more than $103,000 and will be placed on one year’s probation upon his release. He said nothing after receiving the sentence, then was given a few weeks to get his affairs in order. The date was September 11.

The sentence shocked Tommy Chong’s family and acquaintances.

“There was zero anticipation that there would be any time served here,” says family friend Jim Kalmenson, a KRLA radio DJ and general manager of Spanish-language station KWKW. “I had thought nothing serious was going to come of this, that it would be great publicity for Tommy and something good would come from this.”

In fact, U.S. District Court Judge Arthur J. Schwab’s concerns for Chong parlaying the case into positive PR for upcoming projects caused him to ask the entertainer under oath if he’d planned to profit by his arrest and incarceration. Schwab and prosecutors had apparently been irked by glib comments Chong had made to officers during the raid and to the press afterward — particularly about using the experience in his act and future autobiography and film.

“This isn’t normal at all,” attorney Levenson says of Schwab’s query about Chong’s plans. He is worried about how his client’s negative answer may be used against him in the future.

To his family, the government clearly confused their suspect with his stoned-out screen persona. “They don’t know the difference between Tommy Chong and Man,” Shelby says.

Perhaps, though, it is a case of the Bush administration confusing the present with the 1960s, an era whose rebellious legacy it seems obsessed with obliterating. To Ashcroft and other Puritan Republicans, Tommy Chong’s prosecution is merely another skirmish in their implacable war against the 20th century. In this climate it becomes almost pointless to talk about the drug-war hypocrisy of a White House whose mortgage is owned by pharmaceutical monopolies. Or of the reverential treatment given the Oxy-popping Rush Limbaugh by neo-McCarthyites like Bill O’Reilly, who lyingly told a Jay Leno audience that Tommy Chong had been arrested 18 times.

The word most used by Paris and Precious Chong to describe their father’s ordeal is “surreal.” “They couldn’t have picked a kinder, more generous person to throw in jail than my father,” Paris says. Today the family remains afraid of what the Justice Department might yet do to their father, and it is plain from speaking to them that they fear being quoted as saying anything that might antagonize it. “I don’t want to say anything against the government because I don’t want anything to happen to my children,” says Shelby. In a strange twist of fate, the Chongs have become an example for every American family in this new age of conformity.

“Growing up, I’d always had this fear that our family wasn’t like everyone else,” says Precious Chong, “and that we’d be punished for it someday — and then this happened. My parents never locked their doors. They do now.”


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