Here is our extended interview with cannabis icon Tommy Chong, of the 'Cheech & Chong' franchise.
Tommy Chong is a central figure in the broader cannabis space, who carved his path in the industry in 1978 through his iconic film, 'Up in Smoke,' which launched the Cheech & Chong franchise alongside Marin Cheech.
Born in Alberta, Canada, Tommy made his foray into the artistic realm in the '60s by playing guitar for a soul group called the Shades.
During this period, Tommy met Cheech Marin, who was dodging the draft for the Vietnam War at the time, and shortly after the pair formed a comedic duo. Quickly, the pair found success through musical comedies such as 'Dave's Not Here' and "Sister Mary Elephant."
These successes culminated in the Cheech and Chong films of the '70s and '80s, which paved the way for stoner films for decades to come.
L: Tommy, Thank you for doing this for me. To begin, what is your daily cannabis intake? How much weed do you consume a day?
T: I don't smoke a whole lot. Maybe a joint, maybe half a joint a day because when I started smoking, I was afraid of it, and so I would just take a little toke and put it out and see what happens. That's what rats do. When they're not sure of a food, they'll take a little bite and then they'll crawl off and they'll wait to see if it kills them. And if it doesn't then they go back and get some more. And so I've been doing that all my life. And even though I got more weed than I'll ever smoke in a lifetime, I still treat it like it's rare and less commodity, and so I smoke maybe not quite a joint, about half a joint a day with my one toke.
L: Wow. And did you develop any kind of abusive use of cannabis?
T: No, not at all. I've been bodybuilding since I was 15, and with the bodybuilding comes diet, and with the diet comes the strict, strict diet because if you want to look halfway decent, you have to lose all that fat. And so when I started smoking, I was very health conscious. And the only reason that I felt good about it is because all my bodybuilding heroes, it was the only substance that they would smoke. Arnold Schwarzenegger, for instance. If he took a drink and it had 7-Up or some kind of Coca-Cola or something, he'd spit it out. He would not do any sugar at all in his body, but after he won a contest, he would light up and smoke a joint.
L: I listened to you and Joe Rogan talking about cannabis and sports and Joe said that if you don't know what you're doing, weed isn't very good. But if you're an expert in your craft, with his example being jujitsu, and you have a toke of a joint, suddenly your mind quiets and you just go into this autopilot where you're actually much better because you're not self-conscious.
T: Absolutely. You really have to be honest with yourself about everything. Not just cannabis. With anything. Before cannabis, in the last couple of decades or so, a lot of the athletes would turn to alcohol, because what alcohol does, again like cannabis, it quiets the mind. That's what happens. And when you quiet the mind, then your body memory will kick in and take over. But I found that cannabis calms the mind and it also puts you in touch with your spiritual side. That's the most important thing.
I found that cannabis calms the mind and it also puts you in touch with your spiritual side. That's the most important thing.Tommy Chong, Filmmaker, Director, Actor, Comedian & Musician
L: There was a psychedelic philosopher Terence McKenna who believed that Humans actually evolved through cannabis use and magic mushrooms. What you're saying reminds me of this, that there's almost this remembering of sorts when you use these drugs. You connect to something that perhaps we've become detached from and that maybe we should be connected to. Would you agree with that?
T: Oh, absolutely, because we're eternal beings. In other words, we've always been here in this spiritual side. And this is what I found out. There's a physical world, which we're in now where we can feel pain, we can feel joy, we can feel the cold, we can feel the heat. That's the physical world. The spiritual, it's just pure energy, and all that's in the spiritual world is love, very warm love, and there's no want, need or desire in the spiritual world. However, we have to learn as we're humans, we're here on earth to learn, and we have to learn everything there is to learn. There's nothing to learn in the spiritual world. You just are. But in the physical world, there are all sorts of things to learn. You have to learn how to walk. You have to learn how to eat. You have to learn how to breathe. You have to learn how to survive. You have to learn how to stay alive. You have to learn about gravity. You're constantly learning.
We don't just appear on earth. We have to go through a womb of a mother, and we have to have a father donate the sperm. All these things have to take place to ensure the human race continues and on and on. And so we are here, like I say, we're here to learn, but we can't give our knowledge to someone else. Everybody has to learn for themselves. But basically, our job on earth here is to help each other, and when we do that, then we evolve. And if we don't do that, well, then, we have to take the course over again. You know what I'm saying? And sometimes we choose that side. And the thing is we need evil because we need the contrast, because without evil, good does not exist. So we need that guy that's doing everything wrong and you go, "What's wrong with him?" Well, what's wrong with him is that he's showing us …
L: And what is that made you go down this spiritual path? Was it just, as you mentioned, having the personality you were fascinated with or a calling to it?
T: It was the calling right from the beginning. Now that I think, I'm at the point now where I can look back because at the time, because I went through, as a child, I went through a separation from my mother. I was separated from my mother about the age of three I guess, three or four, because she had TB and so she … Talk about, what do you call it, distancing, quarantine, type of quarantine, or back in the day, back in the '40s when you had TB, you were stuck way in the sanitarium and you couldn't hug anybody, talk to anybody. You couldn't touch anybody. And so I was separated from my mother for about three years. And during that time, I went into the hospital myself. I had pleurisy. And so my earliest memories was being in a hospital and having these beautiful nurses come and hug me because I was such a cute little guy,
And then after I got out of the home because my dad just came back from the war, he was recovering from some war injuries and so he put the kids, my brother and my sister, my younger sister and my older brother, we were put in an orphanage like a Salvation Army home. And so like I said, I went from the hospital right into the home, and so again I was incarcerated more or less. And I never really got back with my mother until I was I guess five, six years old. That's when she got well enough to come out of the … They operated on her. They took out a lung, so she went the rest of her life with just one lung. That was before the medicine.
But then once the family got together, we were very, very poor, and I found out that … my mother was quarter native, indigenous. I think Ojibwe native. It was a big scandal that I just found out just recently that my mother was a quarter and her mother was half, that was my grandmother. And so we actually lived like natives for the first five, about five more years in a house with outdoor plumbing, outhouses, and we had a wood stove that kept us through the winters. The cold winters in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, they got very cold. And we just had a wood stove and we had no electricity. We had Coleman lamps. And so the only entertainment I had, or we had that we could afford, that we could do was church, Sunday school.
L: So your dad just got out of the war, and you also met Cheech as he was avoiding being drafted for the Vietnam War. Is that correct?
T: That's right. Yeah. The American government was trying to get rid of the Mexicans. The poor people, get them in a uniform and get them over to Vietnam. See, that's the state we've always been in since the beginning of time. It's warfare, because it's a physical universe, and of course you're going to have disputes, and of course the people that have are going to try to keep it away from the people that don't have, and it goes back and forth in territories.
So Cheech was running from the draft, and he ended up in my hometown, the town I was telling you about where we had no plumbing and outhouses and that. Cheech moved a couple of miles away from that very place. It's pretty funny because when we moved there, before he met me, he was hearing about me because I was somewhat of a legend by that time, and so he heard about me. And then when he met in Vancouver, it was very serendipity. He was like, "Whoa. Yeah, I heard about you."
L: And how had you become a legend at that point?
T: It was music. I had written a song called Does Your Mama Know About Me and was recorded by Diana Ross and the Jackson Five and Bobby Taylor and our group. It was a minor R&B hit, and Cheech was a record reviewer for a hippie magazine, and so he knew about the song and he knew the name, Tommy Chong. He knew the name. I don't know. Because here, you come from a small town like Calgary and you make it big, right away, everybody knows who you are, and everybody claims to have gone to school with me or lived next door to me and all that stuff. So that's how Cheech heard about me.
L: Right. And then when you two partnered up and, obviously, became a huge success. So what was it that prompted you to use cannabis as your medium?
T: Right from the very beginning, I've always been a big cannabis advocate from the first time. The first time I tried it, I was 17 years old. And then after that, playing blues in a blues band, we had the guys, the pushers come around with the little pinners, the little joints selling for a buck apiece and it would be enough to get you high, enough to go play and enjoy your music. But when we started, we started out in a strip club, and so our first act was based around sex, not so much drugs but mostly sex jokes.
It wasn't until we got to California when we became a comedy duo that we had to go to pot because the crowd had been, all of a sudden, they're younger. They're not the strip joint guys, and they're much younger, and the only thing they related to really was pot. But more than pot, we're in Southern California, in Los Angeles, and we have one gig. In the beginning, we were like, "Oh yeah, these guys are funny," but it wasn't until we discovered Cheech's Chicano character, and that was done out of necessity because we had to do two shows at one club, and the first show didn't go over that well. And the reason was is that they're young and they were dancers and they weren't into the sex jokes, and so we come up with the Chicano character, and I came up with the stoner character, which ended up in smoke with those guys.
Then, as soon as Lou Adler, our producer, saw us, he called us in and signed us up, and we recorded Dave's Not Here, and the rest … That started the rollercoaster, and it hasn't stopped yet.Tommy Chong, Filmmaker, Director, Actor, Comedian & Musician
L: Was there any consideration more broadly like we are changing the way cannabis is perceived or was it I want to make something funny and cannabis is currently the best medium for them?
T: It wasn't just the cannabis. It was the way people looked at Mexicans or Chicanos. Back in the day, Chicanos were looked at like gang members, pachucos, guys with duck tails. They were bad asses because a lot of them didn't go to work. They stayed home and they had the long hair, where all the GIs had their head shaved, and so there was a lot of clashes between these pachucos, they were called. And so there was a lot of bad blood with the pachucos and with the gang members.
I was aware of the bad rap that Mexicans have, the Chicanos, and I really wanted to show through Cheech how innocent, how funny, how lovable these guys could be, and that's what Cheech did. And to this day, we are so popular in all the Spanish speaking countries, it's incredible. We're treated like gods in Brazil, in Argentina, all those places. You mention Cheech & Chong and everybody, because it just resonated with everybody. We weren't mad at anybody at all, nobody. We're just innocents trying to play our music. That's all.
L: That's interesting that not only in perhaps a direct or indirect way, Up in Smoke and the Cheech & Chong films, not only removed the stigma around cannabis but also the association with cannabis and Mexicans and how derogatory that was back in the day.
T: That's exactly what I wanted to do. Racism has always been part of the world. I'm not just going to say the United States. The whole world. And it's funny. The first band I had was called the Shades because we're all different colors. There was an American Indian, Canadian black and he, half Chinese Canadian, and so we're all different colors. We called ourselves the Shades.
L: And then obviously, outside of movies now, you've expanded to have your own cannabis company, Tommy Chong's. How did that come about?
T: That was thanks to my son, Paris. Actually, when I went to prison in '03, my son grew up and he took over, and then he took over as my manager. And so we made Tommy Chong's Cannabis, which sells all sorts of cannabis products, and our next plan is to open the Cheech & Chong dispensaries. That's what we're working on now. We've gone public with the offer. It will be on the stock exchange and we're going to be selling shares.
We're going to have a series of Cheech & Chong Dispensarias, we call them, and they're going to be carrying all our products. It's going to be more of a community center experience as opposed to just selling the weed because what I want to do is have a bulletin board, I want to have an art section, somewhere to read, the whole experience. So when you go there, either go online or when you go see us, you're going to get a whole experience, not just the product itself, but it's going to be a really Cheech & Chong experience.
You can find out more about Tommy Chong's cannabis brand at his website here.
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