On Feb. 24, 2003, the nation's newspaper headlines provided a snapshot of the way we live now. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was in China that day, talking to the country's leaders about North Korea and the looming war in Iraq. A United Nations representative to Afghanistan was issuing dire warnings about that country's fragile peace. The president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, was threatening to arrest the leaders of a national strike; meanwhile, representatives from the Ivory Coast were in Paris trying to negotiate peace.
More About This Movie
That same morning, in the upscale Los Angeles neighborhood Pacific Palisades, more than a dozen members of the Drug Enforcement Administration were giving the comedian Tommy Chong (né Thomas B. Kin Chong) and his wife, Shelby, a very rude awakening. A nationwide federal investigation, code-named Operation Pipe Dreams and Operation Headhunter, had just gone public and, as recounted in the documentary "a/k/a Tommy Chong," was about to rock the couple's world. More than 100 homes and businesses were raided that day, and 55 people were named in indictments, charged with trafficking in illegal drug paraphernalia — meaning, for the most part, what teenagers, hippies, rappers, Deadheads, cancer patients and many millions of other regular pot smokers commonly refer to as bongs.
Mr. Chong, half of the famous stoner comedy team Cheech and Chong, was not indicted that morning. But his family's business, Chong Glass, which manufactured a line of colorful hand-blown bongs under the name Nice Dreams (after one of the comedy duo's flicks), was raided. The company had been the brainchild of the Chongs' son Paris, who made sure he and the rest of the employees were familiar with laws regulating what are euphemistically called tobacco pipes. Even so, the company succumbed to one eager head-shop owner in Beaver Falls, Pa., who — as we hear in a tape played in the documentary — really, really wanted to buy some Nice Dreams pipes. That dude turned out to be a federal agent.
Months later Tommy Chong, who had never been arrested in his life, pleaded guilty. Subsequently, on Sept. 11, 2003, he was sentenced to nine months in jail; it was the harshest sentence that would come out of this particular chapter in the government's continuing War on Drugs. "The defendant has become wealthy throughout his entertainment career through glamorizing the illegal distribution and use of marijuana," wrote one of the prosecutors in papers filed with the court. "Feature films that he made with his longtime partner Cheech Marin, such as 'Up in Smoke,' trivialize law enforcement efforts to combat drug trafficking and use."
The film "a/k/a Tommy Chong" tells the depressing, often ridiculous and generally enraging story of how and why Mr. Chong, an extremely laid-back and genial camera presence, ended up doing time in the minimum-security Taft Correctional Institution in Taft, Calif. Written and directed by Josh Gilbert, a friend of the comedian, the 78-minute film taps a number of experts and supporters to fill out the larger story, including Eric Schlosser, the author of "Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market." Mr. Schlosser provides the film a much-needed dollop of historical and political context, while friends and colleagues like Lou Adler, the music impresario who directed Cheech and Chong's 1978 film "Up in Smoke," along with Bill Maher and Jay Leno, lend more emotional and outraged support.
"With the advent of the Internet, the illegal drug paraphernalia industry has exploded," said Attorney General John Ashcroft the day agents came knocking at Tommy and Shelby Chong's door. "This illegal billion-dollar industry will no longer be ignored by law enforcement." As Mr. Gilbert pointedly notes in his film, when Mr. Ashcroft resigned in November 2004, he released another statement. This one read, in part, that "the objective of securing the safety of Americans from crime and terror has been achieved." By that time Tommy Chong was out of jail and working again, appearing in a play about pot and making plans to return to the television series "That 70's Show," on which he played — what else? — an old hippie with nice dreams.
a/k/a Tommy Chong
Opens today in Manhattan
Produced and directed by Josh Gilbert; written by Mr. Gilbert, with narration written by Mr. Gilbert and Steve Hager; directors of photography, Mr. Gilbert, John Ennis and Jonathan Schell; edited by Will Becton, Howard Leder, Marc Otto and Tom Walls; music by Oz Noy; released by Blue Chief Entertainment. At the Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, west of Avenue of the Americas, South Village. Running time: 78 minutes. This film is not rated.