“AKA Tommy Chong” details the entrapment of a ’70s comedy legend on trumped-up drug charges

By on June 26, 2019

New York-based filmmaker Josh Gilbert’s 2006 documentary film AKA Tommy Chong — now streaming in our Drugs & The Counterculture section on Night Flight Plus — details the entrapment and prosecution of one-half of the counterculture ’70s stoner comedy duo Cheech & Chong, busted at the apex of the first George W. Bush administration for selling bong pipes through the U.S. mail.

The film also features cameo appearances by Bill Maher, Jay Leno, Peter Coyote, George Thorogood, Lou Adler (who directed Cheech & Chong’s 1978 film Up in Smoke), and journalist Eric Schlosser, the author of Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market, among dozens more.

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This 78-minute documentary film reveals how the Department of Justice under U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft (he really let the eagles soar) created a fictional head shop in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, for the sole specific purpose of ordering pot smoking paraphernalia from the Chong family’s internet store, Chong Glass Company, an enterprise co-owned by Chong, his wife, and their son Paris.

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The company — which sold colorful “handmade glass water pipes” under the name Nice Dreams Enterprises, after one of the comedy duo’s movies — then shipped them across state lines, which broke Pennsylvania’s interstate laws.

This particular law had been on the books and gone un-enforced for quite a while, until Ashcroft’s feeble-minded minions used it to snare Chong with a $12 million sting operation code-named “Operation Pipe Dreams.”

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Chong (né Thomas B. Kin Chong) and his wife had no idea they’d broken any federal laws until the early morning hours of February 24, 2003.

That’s when more than a dozen members of the Drug Enforcement Administration entered their home in the upscale Los Angeles neighborhood Pacific Palisades, giving them an absurdly unnecessary rude awakening.

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More than a pound of pot was found too, but because the DEA hadn’t listed marijuana on the search warrant it was inadmissible as evidence.

More than a hundred homes and businesses were raided that same day, which gives you an idea of the size and scope of this DEA drug bust.

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Gilbert’s film obviously takes a side in the argument — we believe he’s on the right side — claiming that in federal courts the power isn’t held by judges but by the prosecutors who offer up plea bargains in order to hand out the sentences they want.

In this case, Mary Beth Buchanan — who was appointed three short days after the attacks of 9/11 — obviously used Chong to make her point that a law is a law (even if it’s absolutely wrong).

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Chong was offered a plea deal and ended up pleading guilty — on September 11, 2003 — in order to make sure that his wife and son weren’t prosecuted.

He served nine months at the minimum-security Taft Correctional Institution in Taft, California (where one of his cellmates with Jordan Belfort, a.k.a. “The Wolf of Wall Street”).

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Buchanan’s assistant prosecutor later said Chong was targeted in retaliation for his comedy — he was a vocal opponent of Bush’s “War on Terror” at the time — stressing in her closing arguments that he had made his fortune “glamorizing the illegal use and distribution of marijuana and trivializing law-enforcement efforts to combat drug use.”

Read more below about AKA Tommy Chong.

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Chong was the only defendant with no prior convictions among the fifty-five defendants charged with trafficking in illegal drug paraphernalia (“conspiracy to manufacture and distribute”) who actually served any time in prison.

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Gilbert was there with his camera to witness what happened when Chong, post-prison, used what had happened to him as hilarious stand-up material.

While serving his time, he also wrote his first memoir titled The I Chong: Meditations From The Joint, which detailed what happened when DEA agents swooped in to arrest him.

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In the book, Chong — who we previously told you about in this vintage Night Flight blog post, which focuses mainly on Chong’s membership in the 1960s rock band the Vancouvers, and writing a Top Forty hit (“Does Your Mama Know About Me”) — casts himself in quite a different light than his on-screen stoner persona.

He talks with pride in the film (as well as the book) about being a pot smoker, musing at length about how his arrest energized his personal activism, giving him something to fight against that was more important than his status as a counterculture comedy icon.

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Chong’s wife, Shelby — who performs twenty to thirty minutes of stand-up comedy when she and her husband appear at comedy clubs across the country — is featured prominently in the film.

It’s clear from the film that Chong is very devoted to her and supportive of her comedy career, which is frankly pretty fucking endearing.

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AKA Tommy Chong screened at the Toronto International Film Festival and the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam before being shown on the Showtime cable network.

Gilbert meet Chong while he was working at Cinetel Films, his first job post-film studies at the USC School of Cinematic Arts (Gilbert also earned BA in Political Economy from UC Santa Cruz).

Chong was making his straight-to-video comedy Far Out Man, and together they co-wrote a screenplay Dying’s Easy, Comedy’s Hard, which got them meetings in Hollywood which ultimately led to Gilbert and his girlfriend financing AKA Tommy Chong before an outside investor also expressed interest.

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Gilbert passed away on November 26, 2016, after a two year battle with leukemia. He was 54 years old.

Watch AKA Tommy Chong and other documentary films on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.