Chong gets nine-month sentence for bongs

Friday, September 12, 2003

— Tommy Chong, who played one half of the dope-smoking duo in the Cheech and Chong movies, asked for leniency from a judge Thursday but was sentenced to nine months in prison for conspiring to sell drug paraphernalia.

Chong's attorneys argued for no jail time, saying the actor and comedian would use his fame to become a role model against drugs and would dedicate his life to public service.

The 65-year-old apologized to the court and his family, saying he "got carried away" with his movie character. He admitted once having "a drug problem with marijuana" but said he beat it by redirecting his energy to salsa dancing.

"It's a Latin American dance that's awesome," Chong told U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab before the judge imposed the sentence, which included a $20,000 fine.

Chong said he had been working with youth groups, teaching filmmaking and speaking against drug use.

When they "saw that I was not the character that I played in the movies, they were surprised. Some were disappointed," Chong said.

But Assistant U.S. Atty. Mary Houghton said Chong grew wealthy glamorizing drug use and trivializing law enforcement in his films of the late 1970s and early '80s. Houghton also said Chong used the movie persona to promote his catalog and Internet business.

Chong admitted that his company, which operated as Chong Glass and employed 25 glass blowers, sold some 7,500 bongs and pipes until Feb. 14, when federal drug agents raided his California home and business. Authorities also seized about a pound of marijuana.

Richard G. Hirsch, one of Chong's attorneys, urged Schwab not to punish the actor for his films. "The government is asking you to blur the distinction between reality and satire," he said.

Chong's attorneys said the actor already had been punished: The case cost him a recurring role on the Fox sitcom "That '70s Show" and a planned reunion movie with Cheech Marin, with whom he co-starred in comedies including "Up in Smoke" and "Nice Dreams."

Along with the fine, Chong must forfeit more than $103,000. The business, though defunct, was placed on probation for three years and its Internet domain name must be relinquished to federal authorities, along with any remaining paraphernalia.