TORONTO (CP) _ Tommy Chong, one half of the legendary comedy duo Cheech and Chong, exudes as much serenity sipping on a cup of coffee in a downtown hotel as one might expect from a lifelong pothead.
But three years ago, the Canadian-born Chong had good reason to freak out _ agents for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency burst into his California home and busted him for selling bongs online, the first time an obscure law dealing with such offences had ever been enforced.
In his new book "The I Chong: Meditations From the Joint" (Simon and Schuster), Chong insists the feds came after him, at the behest of the Bush administration, because he’d frequently spoken out against the war on terror and the erosion of civil liberties after 9-11.
"I was the first one they’d ever charged under that law," says the 68-year-old Chong, in Toronto on Monday promoting his book. "Symbolically, I represented the antiwar movement. I represented the hippies. And they’re scared to death of the hippies, because the hippies are the ones who stopped the Vietnam War."
That’s not just nostalgic bluster from Chong, who was introduced to a new generation of fans when he played aging stoner Leo on "That ’70s Show." Of the 55 people charged under the "Operation Pipe Dreams" sweep in early 2003, Chong was one of the very few who was sentenced to hard time. Most were sentenced to fines and home detentions.
In last year’s documentary "A/k/a Tommy Chong," which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, comedian and social commentator Bill Maher, among many others, accused the U.S. government of making an example out of Chong for petty political reasons.
But thanks in part to his spirituality and, undoubtedly, his unabashed appreciation of the calming effects of marijuana, Chong approached his sentence with good humour. He says he didn’t mind his nine months in prison because it allowed him to focus primarily on writing the book.
"If you’re a guy like me, it’s not so bad … I’m an old man, I’m a writer and I’m writing my book, I’m Tommy Chong, and I’m doing time with my fans," he says.
Being Canadian, Chong says, also helped.
"When you grow up in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and spend 20 years with Alberta winters, everything else is so easy. Nine months in a California jail is nothing compared to nine months of a Canadian winter," he says with a laugh.
"Canadians, we appreciate sunshine and the things that really matter in life. People say to me: ‘Don’t you get tired of signing autographs?’ No! Being famous, that’s pretty easy."
In some ways, he says, the bust actually helped rejuvenate his career as marijuana advocates started a "Free Tommy Chong" movement and he became the subject of the documentary. But there are no plans to get back together with Cheech Marin.
Chong once famously described his old comedy partner as being "closer than a wife. The only thing we didn’t do was have sex." The pair, one of the most successful comedy acts of all time, split up in 1985 due to creative differences in a breakup that Chong likened to "a death in the family."
It seems those differences are still serving to keep them apart.
"He’s been trying to get me to do a play but he doesn’t want to do the doper characters, so I’m not interested. I only want to play a doper. If it works, don’t fix it," Chong says.
He can’t resist poking fun at Marin for his recent stint on the Fox show Duets, in which professional singers like Winona Judd and Belinda Carlisle are paired up with wannabe celebrity crooners. Marin got voted off after week 4.
"After seeing him on Duets … you know, I don’t want to hang with losers. He lost pretty bad. If he’d stayed on another a week, I would have voted him off," Chong says.
"And he was serious, that’s what really scared me. There’s a reason we went into comedy. We were going to start a band, but I heard him sing and I said: ‘We better stick with comedy.’ "