Legend Tommy Chong Turns 85

Stephen Andrews
24 May 2023

Can you imagine the world of cannabis without legend Tommy Chong? Not sure if anyone can. A beloved comedian, actor and musician across all generations, Tommy Chong, is undoubtedly one of the most famous celebrities ever to be associated with weed.

The Canadian-born actor turning 85 this month, is part of the genius cinematic comedic duo Cheech & Chong (along with Cheech Marin). Chong is also among the most significant icons in the cannabis movement, in the ranks of Snoop Dogg, Willie Nelson, and B-Real.

He spent much of his early days in British Columbia, which might explain how he got his love for pot. BC is the home of some extraordinary strains and overall great cannabis; it's the perfect place in the world for weed.

Born to a Chinese family who immigrated to Canada between the world wars, Chong had an affinity as a performer since very young. He initially started playing music; his band was called The Shades. Eventually, he decided to try out comedy, and that's probably the best decision he ever made. 

Comedy led Chong to Vancouver, where he began performing at the Blue Door Club, and this is where he meets Cheech Marin in the late 1960s. Cheech has moved from California to Vancouver to avoid the draft at the height of the Vietnam War. The two formed the legendary comedy duo Cheech and Chong and soon embarked on a tour across Canada and then the US to perform their comedy sets. 

When the duo moved to Los Angeles, they started to use weed and cannabis culture references in their comedy work. They could have hardly imagined at the time they would become so successful with the broader cannabis community.  

The moment that made Tommy Chong an absolute star, along with Cheech Marin, is their debut movie from 1978, Up in Smoke. In the movie, the two of them travel together in a dank van across the country. They are high all the time. And they are hilarious. The film was unlike any other comedy back then, and today it counts as one the all-time classic stoner flicks that even dudes who don't like weed so much should watch at least once. 

Fortunately, Cheech and Chong did not stop their collaboration with Up in Smoke. They went on to make a couple more movies and even albums, building up stoner vocabulary and forging weed culture. 

Another highlight of Tommy Chong's decades-long career is his role in That 70s Show. There he played the fun-loving, aging hippie and pot-loving friendly face of Leo Chingkwake. Not too far from playing himself. Some of the best scenes of this show are when the group gets together to pass around a joint, then the camera follows each toker (Glad they kept these scenes in That 90s Show).

Chong's character was absent through seasons five and six of That 70s Show. Around this time, in the early 2000s, the actor got arrested and received nine months in federal prison for selling drug paraphernalia. You read that well. He was not selling drugs; his hubris was selling stuff like glassware on the internet. 

Chong returned to the popular TV show during season seven, all while he continued to advocate for cannabis legalization, now more vocal than ever. He had no other way but to transform himself and speak up. Because of his incarceration, he could not be directly involved in the cannabis industry for a while. Yet, he still licensed a company bearing his name to be co-chaired by his son, Paris Chong. 

In the age of legalization, Tommy Chong has fully embraced the opportunities that legal cannabis has given. In 2016, he launched his own cannabis brand, Chong's Choice, offering both CBD and THC products.

The Grammy-awarded comedian was diagnosed with prostate cancer during his stay in prison. Chong has revealed that he didn't turn to cannabis immediately. At first, he used traditional pharmaceutical drugs to treat the disease. "They told me it was slow-moving prostate cancer and that I would probably die of something else first, so they weren't really going to bother with it," he would later comment. 

Chong would eventually undergo surgery to remove the cancer and turn to cannabis to help his recovery. 

"I'm no doctor and I've never played one on TV but I absolutely believe that using CBD and legal cannabis every day helped me recover from cancer not once, but twice," Chong says on his company's website. 

How has Cannabis changed over the many decades? There is no better person than Chong to answer that one—he, who has apparently seen it all. From being a cultural icon, to being a convict and a medical cannabis patient. 

His answer is witty: "The new face of cannabis now is old ladies taking it to sleep at night. You talk to ladies everywhere and they say: I got my edibles by my bed, I wake up, take another gummy bear, and I sleep like a baby. It's my medicine." 

It goes without saying that Tommy Chong is a living legend in the cannabis world. As a solo performer, as part of Cheech and Chong, and as someone who has fought for legal cannabis for 40 years, Tommy Chong is a household name. He is someone exceptional, and the cannabis scene would not be what it is today without him. 

Stephen Andrews