Tuesday, September 16, 2008

a/k/a Tommy Chong

This is not exactly a movie review, but more about the significance of this film with respect to the war on drugs. In case you haven’t seen a/k/a Tommy Chong, it is a documentary that tells the story of the federal government’s investigation, arrest, prosecution, and subsequent imprisonment of Tommy Chong for selling glass pipes.

You see, there is a federal law that makes sales of “drug paraphernalia” a criminal offense in the U.S. There are also a few states that have similar laws. However until recently, that federal law had not been enforced. So a number of retailers, including Mr. Chong, had been selling a variety of so-called paraphernalia for many years with no legal repercussions. Unfortunately, what these pipe vendors didn’t anticipate was an ambitious young U.S. Attorney, Mary Beth Buchanan, who wanted to make a name for herself. Of course if the government really wanted to shut down these vendors, they could have simply sent them “cease and desist” letters letting them know that the federal law was going to be enforced once again (as is pointed out in the film). But that’s not how you make headlines. And when one of those vendors is a famous pro-marijuana celebrity, the headlines make you look even more impressive.

As part of the investigation (which cost taxpayers $12 million), undercover agents repeatedly called Mr. Chong’s company trying to get them to ship their products to Pennsylvania, one of the few states in which selling glass pipes is illegal. After being refused over and over again, the agents eventually came up with a way to “encourage” shipment, and that, as they say, was that. Several heavily-armed federal agents raided Mr. Chong’s home and place of business. For some strange reason though, only Tommy Chong was charged with a crime, and that was some time later. After a brief trial and some plea bargaining, Mr. Chong ended up serving 9 months in a federal prison, for his first criminal offense. Approximately 50 other retailers were targeted as part of this operation, but they served little or no prison time.

Interestingly enough, a conviction for a first-time DUI offense in California, which is a crime that endangers lives, will only get your license suspended for four months. Even three DUI convictions will not land you in jail. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if Mr. Chong’s punishment fit his crime.

So, what was the point of “Operation Pipe Dreams” (cleverly, the government chose a name that sounds a lot like the title of a Cheech & Chong movie, which coincidentally was also the name of Mr. Chong’s business), other than advancing some careers? I think it’s safe to say that the government was trying to send a message. As the government is wont to do, they believed that the use of threats, intimidation, prosecution, and imprisonment would show people that they mean business. Surely after such a large-scale operation, no one would dare sell these items in the U.S. ever again. And by going after Mr. Chong in particular, they would show that no one, not even a stoner celebrity, is above the law. In fact, the prosecutors and judge made no secret of the fact that Mr. Chong was targeted because his career has been based on pro-marijuana entertainment.

So what were the results of this massive operation? Well, for one thing, drug paraphernalia is just as easy to buy in this country as it always has been. But the government doesn’t really care about that. The war on drugs has never been about showing results. A more significant result, also not intended by the government, is that Mr. Chong’s career has been revitalized. And that, more than anything, seems to have pissed them off. Won’t they ever learn that when you try to make an example of someone, especially someone who really isn’t a bad person, that you only end up making them a martyr? (Maybe those religious right-wingers should have spent some time reading their New Testament.) This 70-year-old hippie, who hasn’t been doing much lately other than selling glassware, is now a hero to a whole new generation of stoners. The film (from which Mr. Chong makes no money) has won awards at the HBO Comedy Arts Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival, the San Francisco Independent Film Festival, and of course, the High Times Stony Award, to name just a few. He’s back on the road again doing stand-up comedy and has even reunited with Cheech Marin, his old partner, for a tour. In fact, getting busted is the best thing to happen to Tommy Chong’s career in many years.

And that’s most certainly not a result the government was anticipating. I’d say they are completely mystified by this turn of events. How could Operation Pipe Dreams, which was motivated purely by the egotistical self-importance and career aspirations of a few government officials, have gone so wrong? Just because they targeted someone who exercised his constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of speech to disagree with the government, surely no one would hold that against them. The government does that sort of thing all the time. No big deal. And surely no one could fault them for targeting an entertainer beloved by the last few generations of stoners. More importantly, since things did turn out this way, how can the government let Mr. Chong get away with profiting from their misguided ignorance and incompetence? Well, they can confiscate 10,000 of his DVDs for starters. I’m not sure why, since Mr. Chong is only the subject of the documentary and makes no profit from it. But I’m sure it makes somebody feel better that they are at least doing something to show that they are not taking the repercussions of their actions lying down. No one should be allowed to profit from the government’s stupidity and vindictiveness.

In retrospect, I’d have to say that things turned out pretty good for Tommy Chong and the American people in general. Mr. Chong’s career has been given new life. A whole new audience is now aware of his work. And the American people have had a chance to see what really motivates their government in the ongoing war on drugs. Ironically, the government is their own worst enemy when it comes to defending their war. A few more high-profile busts of harmless, beloved celebrities will do more to end this senseless war than all the protests and petitions of pro-pot groups combined. So my hat’s off to Ms. Buchanan and her crew. Don’t stop showing the people what the war on drugs is really all about. Keep up the good work!

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