A Conversation With Tommy Chong
Neil Visel

A Conversation With Tommy Chong

In this interview, Chong, counter-culture legend and industry veteran, shares details on his new retail venture, offers his advice for others in the business, and reflects on his place in cannabis history.

August 17, 2020

Tommy Chong’s place in the cannabis culture is legendary. Indeed, “Cheech & Chong’s Up In Smoke” was the piece that introduced many to the friendlier, less “Reefer Madness”-y side of the plant. After making the Cheech & Chong brand synonymous with cannabis, both figuratively and literally, Chong is turning his attention to selling the product that helped him find fame.

In this interview, Chong explains why he and his partners, Five Point Holdings, chose to focus their first launches in five states, details his day-to-day involvement in the business, and reveals which Beatle he has yet to get high with.

[Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length, style and clarity.]

Brian MacIver: How long have you been wanting to launch a dispensary line and why did you feel that now was the right time to jump into the dispensary business?

Tommy Chong: Well, legalization kind of took everybody by surprise, ‘cause we'd been sort of groomed to that black market thing, and everything was set up for the black market and that market was booming. All of a sudden, it's a [legal] business. So right away the get-rich-quick schemers raised all kinds of money with bogus brands. They [had] no plan. All they [wanted] to do is raise money and that's what they [did].

So we've been taking our time—just relax, no rush. We turned down a lot of fly-by-night deals because it wasn't right. We're doing it right where we're starting slow and small, we're owning the business. There's no debt involved in our offerings. We're going to grow slow, but we're going to grow steady. And now we have a chance to become, really, the biggest marijuana retail outlet in the world—at least the most recognizable, for sure.

We got really good people spearheading our drive to get our pot shops up and running. And it looks like we're going to have one in San Francisco and one in L.A.

I'm starting up a podcast with my wife and we're going to show the older side of the pot use. [With] “Up in Smoke,” I showed the younger side and the music side. Now we're going to show that the retirement side, the older side, because it's a medicine.

BM: What attracted you about the markets that you're launching the dispensaries in? The press release mentioned California, Nevada, Arizona, Illinois and Washington.

TC: We want to go to where our base is. In San Francisco and L.A., Cheech and Chong could be anointed as the [Popes] of those cities.

See, that's another strategy: because we are Cheech and Chong, we deserve to be at the front of the line, you know, right up in the beginning. And that's where we are. Our strongest points are in L.A. and San Francisco, by far. And then San Diego is really close. Anywhere there's a big Mexican population, that's where Cheech and Chong really show our power.

We're very popular worldwide, and when this pandemic is under control, we're going to have stores in every major city in the world.

BM: What will your day-to-day role look like leading up to the launch and once the businesses are up and running?

TC: We're going to be doing a series of personal appearances. We're going to open 'em, and we're going to have little contests. Cheech and I, we love this.

And then what I want to do is have art exhibits nearby because Cheech is knee-deep into Chicano art. And I got sculptures and art that I do. I'm going to be displaying a million-dollar bong that a friend of mine—and actually an ex-competitor, Jerome Baker Glass—we're teaming up to do a million-dollar bong. It's going to be on display at a few of these dispensaries or nearby.

I was going to be having art shows in all sorts of activity, going on to bring awareness to what we're doing—and then also to give Cheech and I stuff to do other than just smile and take pictures. We're still comedians and we still got a lot of shit to say, as you’ve no doubt been noticing. We're going to be so hands-on. My ambition is to have the biggest pot mall in the world.

BM: What are some considerations to launching a dispensary and the age of COVID? Have you had to change your plans because of the pandemic?

TC: Not really. It's a consumer's dream, [right now]: you [can] go online and you take your time, you shop, you study it. It's just not walking into a store to something shiny looking at you. You're doing your homework.

You know, the pandemic is helping everything. We're going to use that awareness that people have to have now: wear a mask when you come into a store.

BM: What theme or experience are you looking to create in your dispensaries?

TC: Cheech and Chong. Like where you're feeling like you're in one of our movies. There'll be a lot of [the] Cheech and Chong-y end of things. The stores will be a really nice experience and it's going to be full of information because that's what people really need when they go to a store: information.

Because we're Cheech and Chong, there's going to be, especially here in the Southern States or the Western States [where] there's a lot of Mexicans, that culture definitely prominent. The whole Cheech and Chong was a celebration of the Chicano stoner. That's what it was, because for so many years, even right now, when we get scripts, they always want to make the Mexicans out like El Chapo. They always want to demonize the minority, for some reason.

That shit's dying, and Cheech and Chong, we were a big part of that, making the stoner image more about music and love and funny games as opposed to being mean and killing for profit. And that's the whole thing about our stores, too. Instead of dividing, we want to bring everybody together—that's what our dispensaries are going to do.

BM: In a recent press release you said "it's important for me to feel comfortable when I'm putting my name on a product. I trust this team. So our partnership is a natural fit." What are some of the traits that you look for when you're looking for business partners or licensing partners?

TC: Why they're doing it. People invest money for different reasons. If you're in it for the money, that's wrong, no matter what you're doing. You gotta be in it for the love of doing it, whatever it is, be it law, be it medicine, anything in the world.

I was in jail [with] the Wolf of Wall Street, [Jordan Belfort], and he's a thief, there's no other way around it. That's what he learned to do. And he learned to do it well. You can't have that attitude and be happy in this business, especially in the pot business. That's why the other [companies] that went in it just for the money [are] starting to fall by the wayside. You got to [go] through and do everything right. If you don't, you're in the wrong business.

BM: You brought up your time with Mr. Belfort in prison. How has your personal experience being incarcerated on cannabis-related charges influenced your approach or values in the regulated cannabis and hemp industries today?

TC: I was put in jail mainly because of my “Up In Smoke” character. There were so many people that thought that's exactly who I am—just get high every chance they get and, you know, “fuck you.”

[My time in prison] was fine. When I got out and I started doing activist work, one of the first things people always [asked]: “what was it like being in jail?” I would tell him, “you will find out because if we don't change these laws, everybody's gonna go to jail the way I did.”

As soon as I got out, everybody wanted to talk to me. I was on Bill Maher, I was on CNN a shitload of times. I was on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno on my first day out.

I know I could have fought it. I could have beat it, but then I wouldn't have had the kind of cred that I got now. Even if they gave me house arrest, it wouldn't have had the same effect that me going to jail for nine months [did], so it had to happen.

BM: What does it mean to you today, considering all the history you have with Cheech Marin, to be partnering with him on a cannabis business?

TC: I think we both think that our stores and our legacy will be cemented in the history. There's a beautiful respect between us and what we've done. When we got together, it was a very cosmic moment. It wasn't hard work at all. It was so easy because he started tell me about his past. I was telling him about my past and then there's tons of humor there.

I always included my kids—my son, he's my manager, my daughters had been in the movies and my wife, who's a partner. It's the Chinese thing: when dad works, the family works. Cheech is basically the same way. His son, Joey, for a long time was part of the Cheech and Chong show. He opened the show, he's a DJ. So it's like we're a big family. The Cheech and Chong community.

[Cheech] just loves being Cheech and Chong. It's working out really nice for us. I’ve got a few bucket list [items]: I want to get us a star on Hollywood Boulevard. I want to do another Cheech and Chong movie. This will be more for awards to show what good actors we really are. 

BM: As you've been in the regulated cannabis industry for a couple of years now, what's your top tip for other cannabis and/or hemp business owners who are currently operating or looking to join the industry?

TC: You need the best legal help. See, the whole thing, it's about rules. You got to know the rules before you get into any business, but especially in the cannabis business. So my advice, to anybody getting into the business is to really, really do your research. Make sure that this is really what you want to do, because this is a commitment. Once you plant that first plant, you have adopted a child that is going to need nurturing right up until you harvest it. And then you've got another child that you've put in. Pretty soon you got a bunch of them and they all take your time. But make sure that you do it with love, because there's no upside to doing anything just for the money. Just find out what it feels like.

You know, the weirdest thing about money is if it belongs to you, you're going to get it one way or another. And if it doesn't belong to you, you're gonna lose it one way or another. That's the way it is.

BM: What's a lesson you learned the hard way?

TC: That 82 is not 62. [Laughs]

BM: [Laughs] In what way?

TC: In every fucking way. The thing is when you get old, nature is very, very coldblooded. Nature will make you pretty when you need to be pretty, but then nature will take away that pretty and slap ugly on your ass. It's a disguise to make sure that no one mistakenly opens this package because this package is old, this package is ready to be retired. So we're not even going to make it fucking inviting. We're just going to make it look so horrendous.

But growing old is perfect for a comedian, because now we are funny.

BM: In a 2018 interview with Jimmy Kimmel, Snoop Dogg put Cheech and Chong on his weed Mount Rushmore, saying that you were "the first faces on the mountain" who "showed us where the mountain was." What are your thoughts on your place in the history of cannabis in America?

TC: I think we could safely say that we are the almighties. If there was a post higher than Pope, that would be us. Cheech and Chong: We're one toke above the Pope, that's where we are.

BM: Who is on your personal weed Mount Rushmore?

TC: Sanjay Gupta. He did what everybody was trying to do and they couldn't do it: He got pot considered seriously by showing a little girl with epilepsy being cured by [cannabis-derived CBD]. And being cured, I'm talking about the mother hugging the daughter for the first time in a year. [Dr. Gupta] singlehandedly took away every argument you could [make against] pot, that it’s a gateway drug, all that bullshit, all gone.

BM: Is there anything left on your cannabis bucket list that you haven’t accomplished?

TC: My only empty on the bucket list: I’ve gotten stoned with every Beatle except Paul. I've never gotten high with Paul. I got high with George. I got high with John in the room. I got high with a Ringo in the room. But I've never even met Paul. And so my bucket list is that I want to smoke with Paul before one of us goes.

Update 8/24 10:15 a.m. EST: This article was updated to clarify that Dr. Sanjay Gupta exposed that cannabis-derived CBD was able to treat epilepsy.