The brilliant life of Tommy Chong, cannabis icon

Through highs and lows, the Canadian-born legend has inspired cannabis enthusiasts and advocates around the world

Chris Harte / Flickr

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If you were to mention the name “Tommy Chong” to every cannabis enthusiast in the world, about 95 percent of them would recognize it. Chong is a comedian and actor famous for his views and perspectives on cannabis. And if you’re not immediately familiar with him, you may know him through one of his most popular vehicles, the award-winning comedy duo Cheech & Chong, which he formed with Richard “Cheech” Marin around 50 years ago. So to highlight the life and career of this legendary cannabis advocate, we’ve put together the following short biography.  

Chong was born in Edmonton, Alberta, in 1938. Some famous people start life with a silver spoon in their mouth, but Chong was no such case. He was raised by an average, down-to-earth family. His mother was a waitress and his father was a truck driver. For years, they lived in a modest house in a Calgary neighbourhood.  

By the time he dropped out of high school, at the age of 16, Chong had taken to the guitar and was focused on music. In 1961, he joined a Calgary-based band called the Shades, which played regular sets around town. Although they became a local favourite, they eventually moved west to Vancouver, British Columbia, and changed their name to Little Daddy & the Bachelors before recording a single, “Too Much Monkey Business”. 

Within a couple of years, Chong and bandmate Bobby Taylor opened a nightclub in Vancouver, which quickly grew in popularity by bringing in A-list artists like the Ike & Tina Turner Revue.

Chris Harte / Flickr

And once again Chong’s band renamed itself, this time to Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers. The change proved to be very good luck: just two years later, they were signed to Gordy Records, a branch of the massively popular Motown Records. 

They soon released a single, “Does Your Mama Know About Me”, cowritten by Chong. It climbed the charts, eventually hitting No. 29 on the Billboard Hot 100 and placing them on a tour bill with the Jackson 5.  

Not long afterward, Chong was fired from the band for turning up late to a gig. But this only set him on a path to acting, comedy, and major success.

By 1971, Chong was collaborating on a comedy duo with the L.A.-born “Cheech” Marin, whom he’d met in Vancouver a couple of years before. Cheech & Chong’s trademark weed-based humour quickly proved to be wildly popular. Their 1971 debut album climbed into the top 30 of the Billboard 200.  

Cheech & Chong gained countless fans, largely through their unique charisma. They had a way of making even the toughest audiences laugh until their stomachs hurt. Their 1973 album Los Cochinos won a Grammy Award for best comedy recording, and their 1978 movie Up in Smoke became a box-office hit and a comedy classic. 

Yet, in 1985, Cheech & Chong broke apart. Both Marin and Chong claim they split over creative differences. Cheech apparently wanted to expand into more mainstream channels, whereas Chong preferred to stay on track. Because of this, Chong entered a difficult time professionally, and reportedly felt like his career was over. But this was not the case: for one thing, he eventually found a regular role in the hit TV series That ’70s Show, as a hippie named Leo who was high at all times. The character was a massive success and became a fan favourite. 

Bill Dimmick / Flickr

Chong went on to become an icon of medical-marijuana use. He went out of his way to educate the public about the medicinal effects of marijuana, and how it should even be allowed to be used in public. Unfortunately, in 2003, he also ended up in an intense legal battle, US v Chong, in which he was charged with distributing cannabis paraphernalia such as bongs through an online company started by his son Paris. 

Charges were brought not only against Chong and Paris, but also against Chong’s wife, Shelby. Because of this, he agreed to plead guilty in return for having the charges against his wife and son dropped. Chong ended up spending nine months in prison and paying over a hundred thousand dollars in fines and forfeitures. This event frustrated and upset many in North America and elsewhere, because the government had chosen to target a prominent cannabis advocate instead of hard-core drug smugglers. It’s one of the reasons why the name “Tommy Chong” rings bells around the world. He sacrificed his freedom not only for his family, but in the name of medical marijuana and everything it can do. 

In 2012, Chong faced more adversity when was diagnosed with prostate cancer. A month after his diagnosis, he claimed he was virtually free of cancer. But it returned in late 2015. Throughout these ordeals, he has praised the role of cannabis in his recovery. 

Chong has been an inspiration to countless people around the world. He’s a brilliant artist, advocate, actor, and comedian who has beaten anti-cannabis social attitudes, prison, and illness. Throughout, he’s maintained a unique charisma, intelligence, and sense of humour. For these reasons and more, he’s one of cannabis culture’s all-time greats.

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