When Tommy Chong talks about marijuana, all other topics of conversation seem to slip into the ether—albeit a dank, hazy one.
More than 50 years of championing the misunderstood herb has made Chong one of the most recognizable pot advocates in the world. It makes sense, then, that the 78-year-old comedian, musician, ex-con, former Vancouverite, and two-time cancer survivor will take to the stage at the International Cannabis Business Conference (ICBC) next Thursday (October 13), where he’ll share with audience members the dirty details of his life as a marijuana user, grower, entrepreneur, and enthusiast.
Speaking with Chong on the phone from his L.A. home, we were surprised by three things. First, Chong defied the laws of stonerdom by calling the Straight office 20 minutes before his scheduled interview.
Second, Chong’s memories of ’50s and ’60s Vancouver, of his nine-month sentence at the Taft Correctional Institution, and of his battles with prostate and colorectal cancer were almost entirely devoid of the word maaaaaaan.
Finally, our 45-minute conversation yielded so much anecdotal gold that we’re fairly certain we have enough material to write a dissertation arguing that Tommy Chong is the greatest stoner in the world.
With that, here are nine juicy nuggets, courtesy of the man himself.
1. At 16, Chong accidentally got a white-supremacy tattoo from an ex-con.
“All my life, I’ve been associated with people who have been in prison for one thing or another. When I lived in Calgary, my parents would let me bring home strays. Some people brought home stray dogs; I brought home stray felons that had nowhere to stay.
“My house acted like a halfway house for prisoners for almost 10 years. I got a tattoo from one of the ex-cons when I was 16, and I didn’t know until recently that it’s a white-supremacy tattoo. He was a biker from the ’40s, and that was the only design he knew.”
2. Chong smoked pot for the first time at age 17.
“The first time I ever smoked pot was in Calgary at a jazz club called the Fats Five. A bass player by the name of Raymond Ma gave me a joint and a Lenny Bruce record. I put the record under my arm and the joint in my pocket, and then he lit up another joint. As soon as I got high, I said: ‘I know what I want to do.’ The next day, I quit school. Everything I had to learn from that point on was on the street and in the club.”
3. Chong was kicked out of his hometown of Calgary by the mayor and the police chief in 1958.
“There was nothing for teenagers to do in Calgary, and I was playing music at the time, so I formed a teen club with my friends. It was a chartered club that allowed dancing, and we hosted it at the legion hall. The rock ’n’ roll attracted all these thugs and rough people, and we absolutely packed those dances.
“We closed at midnight, and after that we’d have all these hoodlums and kids on the street, wreaking havoc on the rest of the city. Since the city couldn’t close our club down, the mayor and the city police chief asked our band to leave. We took them up on it: any excuse to get out of Calgary was a good one. We ended up in Vancouver.”
4. Between 1964 and 1969, Chong ran four different nightclubs in Vancouver.
“The Blues Palace at Broadway and Alma was a theatre turned into a dance hall that we took over in 1964. We opened the venue with the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, and it cost us $750. It was a Tuesday night, and their first Canadian show. After that, they came up almost every month. Then we moved to T’s Cabaret in Chinatown, but it was too small and not in the right district. Then our friend Jim Wisby actually gave us the Elegant Parlour [later the Retinal Circus].
“He said, ‘Take it over, see what you can do, and I won’t charge you rent until you start making money.’ We took it over and it became a beautiful cash cow. We gave all the pimps and hookers and hoodlums a place to go after hours, and we had the best music on the West Coast.” (After that, Chong moved the parlour to the Shanghai Junk at 205 East Pender Street, a club owned by his brother, Stan.) “That’s where Cheech and I started, after I turned the Shanghai Junk into Vancouver’s first topless nightclub.”
5. Chong and his friends were avid Georgia Straight readers.
“The Straight was the first paper to break the Cheech and Chong story, and it was the first paper to do a story on the Shanghai Junk. It was the only paper that we read, and the only one of interest, because the Province and the rest were all about local murders in Surrey—but the Straight had all the good stuff. We even put a couple of ads in it whenI started the Shanghai Junk.”
6. Chong is surprisingly positive about his time served in prison.
“It was ordained. I was chosen to have that experience because I was the only one in the pot world that could come out of it and see it for what it was. It was more like a college dorm than a real prison: there were no bars or walls, just chalk lines. I had one bad half-hour on the first night, but from that point on, jail was just one exciting day after another.”
7. During his nine-month prison term, Chong inspired Jordan Belfort, a.k.a. the Wolf of Wall Street, to write his autobiography.
“I was writing my book while he was playing tennis and trying to be a miniature gangster, but my vibe rubbed off on him. He saw how respected I was, so he asked me what I was doing. He said, ‘Oh, I can write a book.’ At first, he did it like he did everything else—copying other people and shit—so when he showed me a page of his writing, I critiqued it pretty hard. I told him the harsh truth, because you can talk to geniuses like that.”
8. After two cancer diagnoses in three years, Chong now has a clean bill of health. (His explanation of how medical marijuana works might just be the best thing ever.)
“Here’s how cannabis works: it works on the brain, and the brain controls the immune system. When the brain is quiet and relaxed, then the immune system can go to work. That’s why they put people in induced comas; it takes the fear factor of the brain away. When the brain sends out these fear signals, your body goes into a fight-or-flight mode, but when the cannabis hits the brain, the brain calms down. All it worries about at that point is getting something tasty to eat.”
9. In Chong’s eyes, government intervention will never stop the marijuana industry.
“I have no concerns whatsoever about what Justin Trudeau and the government are doing. They’re playing catch-up with an industry that has been flourishing for years. We know how to grow it, how to harvest it, how to sell it, and how to use it. They can make all the little rules and regulations they want, but it’s not going to make one bit of difference in how we grow, smoke, sell, and use it.
“As for trying to regulate it socially—telling people where to smoke it and all that shit—forget it. All the government can really do is to Google pot and learn all they can about it for themselves so they know what the fuck they’re talking about.”
The International Cannabis Business Conference takes place at the Hyatt Regency Vancouver next Thursday and Friday (October 13 and 14).