Under the Radar: In Conversation With Tommy Chong

Talking serious consequences and the funny business of pot.

Tommy Chong knows good weed—by sight alone. His preferred method of consumption is to smoke out of a DIY-bong fashioned from a kombucha bottle. And the 78-year-old comedian, artist, and activist––whose name has been synonymous with cannabis for more than 40 years––insists that all marijuana use qualifies as medicinal.

“The great thing about pot is that it affects the brain in a very positive manner,” Chong tells the KINDLAND on a gloomy-turned-sunny afternoon in Los Angeles. “The more mellow you can make your brain, the easier it is for your immune system to kick in.”

Chong's on the phone, talking from the opposite end of town, about the Colorado release of Chong’s Choice––the stoner legend’s line of pre-rolls, edibles, and other weed products.

The Centennial State-availability of Chong’s pot––previously sold only in California––is still an unfortunate anomaly in the regulated-weed industry. Fragmented legislation and the herb’s quasi-legality make expansion into multiple markets difficult for any cannabis company. The list of celebrity marijuana labels being sold in more than one state is pointedly short––Chong's Choice is joined only by Snoop Dogg's Leafs (Colorado/Canada) and Marley Natural (California/Oregon). When licensing and franchising deals go down, exporting the weed-branding process across state borders is costly and time-consuming. Shipping actual product even between two normalized states is a federal crime. 

"You don’t have to be Tommy Chong to know that weed is big business. . . But having his name to throw around certainly does help."

“Every state has its own laws and bylaws,” Chong tells KINDLAND. “Michigan is a nightmare, because they’ll change overnight. The trick is to stay under the radar. Just go about your business.”

In 2003, as part of a massive drug war investigation, Chong was arrested for distributing "drug paraphernalia" online. With his son, he ran a company that produced artist-blown glass bongs. The weed world reputation Chong had built up over the decades inspired the judge to make an example of his case. After pleading guilty, Chong served nine months in federal prison––his cellmate was Jordan Belfort, the "Wolf of Wall Street"––paid a $20,000 fine, and forfeited his website domain and more than $100,000 of the company's revenue. 

"Water under the bridge," he calls it. "Now, we aim to provide our customers with the best quality weed available."

You don’t have to be Tommy Chong to know that weed is big business––industry watchers peg national revenues from legal medical and recreational pot sales at $28 billion by 2020—but having his name to throw around certainly does help. Essentially, the Chong's Choice business model hinges on developing relationships with growers and processors that share Chong’s high quality standards, selling these growers and processors the Chong's Choice packaging, and splitting distribution profits. 

“There’s so much product out there, something with [my name] on it will garner more attention than something that’s just sitting there by itself,” Chong says. 

Still, he doesn’t see a corporate takeover of the weed world coming anytime soon: 

“In order to have Big Business control anything, they have to be the only one that can provide people with the product, or they have to control the delivery system,” Chong tells KINDLAND. “The nature of the plant itself keeps [cannabis] from being monopolized––Big Business can only figure out how to get it to more people. Right now, it’s a new industry; so people are looking at it,” he says. “Eventually the sheen will rub off.”

Chong recognizes the opportunity for financial gain that the green rush represents for someone whose life has been just about as weed as it gets. He also sees the Choice brand as a means of providing medicine to others, a remedy that helped him after being diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2012. 

"I had no appetite, and I was wasting away," Chong tells KINDLAND. "And if you’re over 70, that’s a dangerous proposition. I started smoking, and went on a regimen of CBD oil injections. Eventually I got my appetite back," he says. "What we need to worry about, is how to educate people."