As Canada creeps towards its recreational cannabis launch, one of its own, Tommy Chong, is celebrating the commemoration of 40 years since the release of the stoner classic, Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke. At the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, squarely situated in the eye of the mainstream public who are also experiencing cannabis as legal recreational consumers, pop culture’s first visible smokers are getting the historical recognition they deserve.
Cheech Marin, Chong’s former comedy partner, was in Vancouver – now a legendary green city by its own right – when they first collaborated. It looks like the statute of limitations may now allow for some candour; Chong recalls their Canadian follies and the foundation of an iconic duo. “He [Marin] was one of the very few Mexicans that snuck into America from Canada,” he says. “Because when we got together in Canada, he was still wanted by the FBI down here [in Los Angeles] for draft evasion.”
“So, we had to sneak him into the States from Canada, but at that time – this was pre-9/11 and there was no problem at the border. You could tell them anything and they’d let him in. But when we would be on stage at the Troubadour [in Hollywood], I would make Cheech nervous. I would say, ‘Any FBI people in here tonight?’ Cheech would be backstage, ‘Shut up! Shut up!’”
Telling the tale of the birth of Up in Smoke’s chief characters, the story also starts in Canada before a big splash in Los Angeles:
“Well, we started in a strip club in Vancouver, so our material at first was a lot of sex jokes. Then we came down to L.A. and the only thing that would unite everyone, was, uh, well even before we started doing the pot jokes, we tried the material that we owned in Canada, and it wasn’t going over that well here.”
Faced with taking nighclub-goers away from their precious dancefloor at one spot in the Valley, Marin and Chong needed to act fast to win over the disco-loving crowd:
“[Marin] told me about the lowrider; I’d never heard about a lowrider before. So, we got together and we wrote a bit about a lowrider picking up a stoner, and the way we did the lowrider, Cheech would be pretending to be wiping off his car, he would mime and create a car on stage by pretending to clean the window…. When he got in the car, he’d start driving like a lowrider, and then I would appear out of the back, hitchhiking. I’d get in the car and that’s when we started doing pot humour, because he offers me a joint, then I offer him a bigger joint, and that’s what started it.”
According to Chong, being stoners in 1970s Canada wasn’t obvious to others. “Well, it was so illegal in Canada and so rare that I could literally smoke anywhere and nobody knew what it was, and really didn’t care.”
Things weren’t so lax in the States, however. After he was imprisoned for paraphernalia sales in the early 2000s, Chong’s time behind bars was truly enlightening. The differences between healthcare in Canada and the U.S. are so stark that his cell mates were in it sometimes for the services.
“When I was in jail, I met people that committed crimes in order to go to a federal prison [to] get a heart operation – an open-heart operation! Because part of the federal law is that they have to give you all the medical care that you need,” he recalls. “And so, these guys couldn’t get anything on the outside, but once they got in the federal system, they were taken and they were given open-heart surgery. I’ve seen it first-hand. So, you know, this is weird to think that guys like the Republicans, that were so against Obamacare – thinking it’s so socialized – when in fact they’re responsible for the most socialized system in the world [in prisons].”
Considering cannabis prohibition has put many behind bars, legalization could bring about a shift that further prevents the felony cycle; Chong has thought for most of his life that cannabis is a tool for the good of humanity, too. “What cannabis does, it affects the brain. And if it wasn’t for cannabis, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, because it was a cannabis smoker who invented the computer, the iPhone…all of the good stuff we’re enjoying now. The electric car, the solar panels, the wind assisted electricity, it was all due to cannabis.”
Story by Danielle Guercio
Photo by Maria Penaloza
The preceding is for informational purposes only. It is not meant to condone the use or consumption of cannabis. For more information, please refer to our disclaimer.