There was a time when Cheech & Chong kept me sane. It was winter 1971–72, and the world was warning me that smoking pot was going to destroy my ambition, rob me of my motivation and, for all I knew, send me straight to hell. Everything I read said that marijuana would turn me into a low-IQ couch potato, yet here I was smoking a joint then cleaning the house and weeding the yard. It just made no sense
And in the midst of the madness, along came Cheech & Chong and Big Bambú, two records that amplified and crucified ed the stoner clichés of the era. Those albums kept me, and as it turns out, millions of other tokers, laughing our asses off, whether at Bob Bitchen enthusiastically going for the hash on the C&C’s 1980 Let’s Make a Dope Deal album, the hapless “Pedro and the Man at the Drive-Inn” downing their stash to keep from getting busted by the police on 1973’s Los Cochinos, or Sister Mary Elephant screaming at her class to “SHUUUUUDDUP!” in the skit bearing her name. Nobody said “far out, man” better than Tommy Chong. Their most famous routine, “Dave’s Not Here,” became part of stoner mythology. Everybody knew “Dave’s Not Here.”
Cheech & Chong’s comedy, far ahead of its time and with a minority focus—Richard “Cheech” Marin is Mexican-American, and Tommy Chong is of Scottish-Irish/Chinese descent—provided a secret language for our then-illegal, secret society. C&C made it so much less clandestine. They poked holes in marijuana myths—wink, wink— which made us giggle, and at the same time convinced the anti-pot crowd that that’s how people act when they’re high. We knew better. But the stoner stereotype was born.
Fast forward about 46 years to September 2018, and I’m eating catered Cracker Barrel pancakes, bacon, and scrambled eggs on paper plates chatting with Tommy Chong in Lucy Sky, a Denver dispensary that carries Chong’s Choice, his brand of cannabis products. What once was an underground cult with its own code and buzzwords is now a worldwide, multibillion-dollar industry that even Coca-Cola is interested in investing in.
Darkness and Lies
Thinking back, it’s pretty amazing the lengths that the federal government went to—and still does, the budget for the Drug War this year is about 36 billion dollars—to try to keep Americans from “getting high.” Despite that pharmaceutical drugs and alcohol get you “high,” too, American leaders on both sides of the political aisle have tried their damnedest to stop millions of Americans who using cannabis as a part of their lives.
International cannabis policy is still governed by the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, convened in 1961 and updated in 1971 and 1988 by the United Nations. The Single Convention was based on the idea that addiction “constitutes a serious evil for the individual” and is a social and economic obstruction to mankind’s progress.
The “solution” was an approach that included incarceration for users and dealers and, except for medical and scientific purposes, total elimination of all illegal drugs. To be honest, it hasn’t worked out very well after a half-century and who knows how many dollars were spent, and it’s not surprising that some signatories are beginning to question this wisdom, especially in light of legalization efforts in the US. At this point, American states that allow legal marijuana are technically breaking international law.
The Convention was used by President Richard Nixon and Congress to help pass the Controlled Substances Act in 1970, and since then, the federal government has desperately tried to stop you and me and lots of other people from doing something they find enjoyable and that, given the alternatives, seems fairly benign. So pleasurable, in fact, that millions of Americans are willing to continue to break federal and international law to do it.
Nixon, who wandered the White House corridors drunk and babbling to paintings in the dark days before his resignation, was phobic about a lot of things—Jews, gays, hippies, and drug use among them. His aide John Ehrlichman later admitted the administration put cannabis in the same classification as heroin to give Nixon extra-legal leverage over hippies and minorities—that period’s “enemies of the state.” This was after the administration’s Shafer Commission concluded the only problem with marijuana was its illegality. For a short period, the US government helped Mexico spray its fields with the herbicide paraquat to kill pot plants in the early 1970s in an effort to curtail use. In March 1978, 33 percent of marijuana samples found in the US were found to be contaminated with the chemical, a known pulmonary toxin.
But even then, the hypocrisy was already beginning to unravel. I remember reading about a 20-something-year-old man named Robert Randall, who, after years of court battles, won the right to have the US government supply him with marijuana to keep him from going blind back in the 1970s.
Randall’s eye doctor had given him the unfortunate news that severe glaucoma would render him unable to see by age 30. After smoking a joint, he noted that the halos he usually saw around streetlights, a symptom of his disease, had disappeared. He started self-medicating and working with his ophthalmologist, who noted that cannabis was lessening the glaucoma symptoms. He began growing his own plants, and in 1975 was arrested after a search warrant was executed on his property.
Instead of pleading guilty to a misdemeanor possession charge, Randall challenged the government, arguing that he was forced to break the law to keep from going blind. And he won. When he found that the feds were growing marijuana on a farm in Mississippi, he demanded that the government supply him with marijuana to keep his disease in check, and Randall became the first recipient of the shortlived Compassionate Investigational New Drug program, which supplied him with a tin filled with 300 hand-rolled joints every month for many years. The label on the bottle: “Smoke as directed.”
When Randall died in 2001 at age 53 of AIDS-related complications, he still had his sight. So marijuana was as bad as heroin, the government was telling us unless you had glaucoma. Did they think we weren’t paying attention because we were all as stupid as Cheech & Chong were pretending to be when in character? Ah, and then there were the Reagan years. Ronald Reagan, the handsome former actor, and corporate spokesperson, became president in 1980 and reinstated the goal of zero tolerance for all drug users and sellers. Richard Nixon reborn, Reagan demonized marijuana much as he did communism, calling for a nationwide crusade “to rid America of this scourge.” The dope jokes were running thin, but Cheech & Chong’s string of hit films after 1978’s Up in Smoke coincided with the Reagan years and found another eager generation, this one the recipients ofNancy Reagan’s “Just say no” and the Drug AbuseResistance Education(D.A.R.E.) abstinence campaigns. I’m always reminded of those two failures every time I attend a cannabis function since many of the brightest people in the modern cannabis industry grew up in the clutches of those programs.
If anything, President George H. Bush was even worse, hiring William Bennett, a compulsive gambler and nicotine addict, as his first Drug Czar. “The white middle-class user needs to be coerced, needs to be told that his behavior won’t be tolerated,” Bennett once said. He still believes. And who could forget President Bill Clinton claiming that he never inhaled?
Still, attitudes toward legalization began to change in the 1990s, as the number of people incarcerated for cannabis continued to rise, and states, beginning with California in 1996, petitioned to allow cannabis for medical purposes.
Undaunted, the DEA, unable to stop the flow of cannabis into the country from our borders, targeted American growers, unwittingly leading to cannabis becoming the largest cash crop in America. On several occasions, the government went after paraphernalia shops. During one of those, 2003’s Operation Pipe Dreams, Tommy Chong was arrested and served nine months in prison.
The New Normal
The fact is, as Cheech & Chong continue to remind us, that humans are always going to find ways to change their consciousness. Always have, and always will. The War on Drugs has been extremely effective at putting Americans, especially minorities, behind bars. (In 2017, 659,700 Americans were arrested for marijuana offenses.) But despite endless cash, “Just Say No” and D.A.R.E. campaigns, zealous border patrols, sophisticated gadgetry, mandatory sentencing, and harsher punishments, the government hasn’t been able to stop anybody who really wants to from using cannabis.
More than 30 states allow some kind of medical marijuana, and nine states and the District of Columbia allow adults over 21 to purchase cannabis. More than 200 million Americans have access to legal marijuana. Celebrity brands are growing, with Tommy’s Choice among them.
Chong, who turned 80 in May, has never been the character he plays on stage and screen, and he says he’s pretty much a one-toker these days. Almost as many people recognize him from his appearances on television’s Dancing with the Stars as from his routines with Marin. “It’s pretty funny having young fans come over and grab the old stoner for a selfie,” he says, grinning.
Daves is not here
He and Marin do about two months’ worth of live gigs every year, many of them in casinos, he says. The Cheech & Chong act has transformed from a series of skits about stoners into a kind of play. It’s somehow still comforting to know that Dave’s still here.