Sitting in the visitation area inside Taft Correctional Institution, a privately run federal prison plunked in the Iraq-like oilfields of California’s Central Valley, Tommy Chong found out the hard way that Ashcroft’s Department of Justice is now busting thoughtcrime. The 65-year-old writer and director is astonished to find that his movies, in part, earned him nine months in the federal pen.
“They came after me because of the movies, Up in Smoke, Cheech & Chong, and because of my act since 1968,” says Chong. “They took my character to be my real persona.”
The current U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), unlike any in the last 30 years, has changed the rules. Since 9/11, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) has run ads equating marijuana use with supporting terrorism, and the DOJ has taken that outrageous pronouncement to the next level, equating glassware sales with drug dealing.
On February 24, federal agents launched two simultaneous national sweeps for purveyors of drug paraphernalia, Operation Pipe Dreams out of the U.S. Attorney’s office in western Pennsylvania, and Operation Headhunter out of the Northern District of Iowa. Under an apparently little-used 1980s federal law, they scooped up umpteen thousand bongs, pipes, roach clips, and even rolling papers from mail-order and Internet suppliers whose shipments crossed state lines. One of those was the Gardena, California, business run by Chong’s son Paris, called Nice Dreams Enterprises, doing business as Tommy Chong Glass.
Fifty-five individuals and companies were busted across the country that day. A few others got prison time. The one who got the longest sentence was Tommy Chong. He reported to prison on October 8, and he’ll be there until July 2004. A judge recently rejected requests for home detention or early release.
"Tommy’s the only one that’s gotten a federal sentence," says Allen St. Pierre, spokesperson for the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws, or NORML. "He had no prior arrests. He was no flight risk. He is a cultural icon and a taxpayer, probably higher than most of us. And certainly did not fit the basic criteria of who should go to jail for paraphernalia."
But there’s one criterion he fit just too neatly. Every burnout in America would hear about it and get scared.
"[Chong] wasn’t the biggest supplier. He was a relatively new player. But he had the ability to market products like no other," said U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan at Chong’s sentencing.
Nice Dreams, being an interstate glassware seller by mail and Internet, was guilty by association with its own products. The company sold Tommy Chong urinalysis kits to test for THC (the psychoactive ingredient in pot), a Tommy Chong Get Clean shampoo, and Tommy Chong Urine Luck, a urine-sample additive that would guarantee a clean test for marijuana. Plus, of course, stuff with pot leaves and Tommy’s face on it. Which was taken as evidence that this stuff was meant for the chronic.
"So you get that before a jury of 12 reasonable people," adds St. Pierre, "and the reasonable person, more often than not, says, ‘No, I think that that bong with the big marijuana leaf on it, sold in that place with all these other things around it, with drug testing kits and stuff, that was probably not for tobacco.’"
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary McKeen Houghton pointed out at the trial that almost a pound of marijuana was seized at Chong’s house – but he was never prosecuted for possession. They had a bigger target in mind. The glassware itself – and, strangely, only glass bongs and pipes were seized, not plastic, bamboo, or any other thing – has now been criminalized. It’s not about what consumers do with it, it’s what they might do with it. That is what’s known as a thoughtcrime, a crime that never actually occurs.
As in George Orwell’s book 1984, thoughtcrime has now become dangerous. On February 24, agents of the DEA kicked at the door of Tommy Chong’s home at 5:30 a.m., automatic weapons drawn, red laser sights flashing down the darkened halls. Chong and his wife, Shelby, who is also a comedian, were asleep.
"Oh, it was a full-on raid," says Chong. "Helicopters, them bangin’ on the door. They come in with loaded automatic weapons, flak jackets, helmets, visors, about 20 agents. They bust in the house. They took all my cash, took out my computers, and they took all the glass bongs they could find."
Meanwhile, Saddam has been at the mercy of US interrogators for days now, and there is still not a single WMD to be found anywhere in Iraq...