In an unprecedented late-term clemency push, President Obama has commuted the sentences of 673 offenders and pardoned 70 more. Now Tommy Chong, of Cheech and Chong fame, hopes to be one of them.
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Chong, who rose to prominence with Cheech Marin in the 1970s with their joint stand-up routines and stoner buddy comedy films, spent nine months in federal prison in the early 2000s for selling bongs over the internet. Last month, he started a White House petition encouraging the president to pardon him. To date, it’s received over 13,000 signatures, and needs more than 80,000 more by Sept. 25 to ensure a White House response.
Chong’s arrest and subsequent conviction were part of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft’s push codenamed “Operation Pipe Dreams,” an effort to crack down on the distribution of drug paraphernalia like glass pipes and bongs.
One of the U.S. attorneys involved in the case, Mary McKeen Houghton, said at the time that Chong was selected for prosecution partly because he “used his public image to promote this crime.” Chong and his lawyers maintained that authorities simply wanted to make a high-profile example out of him.
Chong didn’t fight the charges, instead pleading guilty in a deal to ensure that his wife and son, who were also involved in the business, wouldn’t face prosecution.
A lot has changed in the marijuana policy landscape since 2003. The drug is fully legal for recreational use in four states plus the District of Columbia. Five more states are considering whether to follow suit this November. Chong told the Hollywood Reporter he wants to get back into the bong-selling business, but his felony paraphernalia conviction is making that difficult.
Chong is hoping President Obama will acknowledge the changing legal and public opinion landscape around marijuana use by pardoning his criminal conviction, which would remove the civil barriers the conviction currently applies to the type of work he’s allowed to do. To that end, last month he started a White House petition encouraging the President to pardon him. To date it’s received over 13,000 signatures. It needs more than 80,000 more by September 25 to ensure a White House response.
Bongs, like the ones Tommy Chong were convicted of selling, remain widely available to purchase online and in local smoke shops. Because of the way federal law is written, as long as bongs and glass pipes aren’t marketed for the express purpose of consuming illegal drugs, they are legal to possess and sell.
In an undated pamphlet, the Department of Justice laments that “identifying drug paraphernalia can be challenging because products often are marketed as though they were designed for legitimate purposes. Marijuana pipes and bongs, for example, frequently carry a misleading disclaimer indicating that they are intended to be used only with tobacco products.”
But the definition of “legitimate purposes” is much murkier now than it was at the time of Chong’s arrest. In addition to the four states permitting recreational marijuana use, 25 states plus DC have medical laws on the books. While pot remains illegal for any use at the federal level, the Justice Department itself has explicitly adopted a more hands-off approach to dealing with marijuana use in recent years.
Recent polling shows public support for marijuana legalization hovering around 60 percent nationally. Chong is hoping these changes will prompt an official gesture of forgiveness from President Obama, who has himself admitted to marijuana use and argued that it’s less dangerous than alcohol.
“I think it [the pardon effort] has a very good chance because Obama has admitted to smoking pot,” Chong told the Hollywood Reporter.