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Chong in the joint, out of joint

Special to The Times; Jonathan Shapiro is a writer and executive producer of the new Fox drama "Justice."

THE prison memoir is an interesting genre. While in custody, freed from the distractions of the outside world, blessed with time, that scarcest of commodities, such prisoners as Gandhi, Malcolm X, Oscar Wilde and Solzhenitsyn wrote highly personal, transformative pieces exploring fundamental issues: man’s relationship to society, the nature of liberty and the responsibility of the artist to remain creatively and spiritually free, regardless of his corporeal status.

Tommy Chong is the dopier half of Cheech & Chong. For those of a certain age, the duo’s albums in the 1970s and movies in the 1980s are but a distant, goofy memory of a time when excessive drug use was considered not only funny but cool.

Sadly for Chong, times and social mores change. In 2003, he was sentenced to nine months in federal prison for trafficking in drug paraphernalia. “The I Chong,” his new book about his arrest, conviction and sentence, shares many of the attributes of previous jail journals. Part autobiographical, part anti-government screed, it is a highly reflective consideration of how Chong ended up incarcerated.

Similarities with the aforementioned prison literature must end there. Simon & Schuster might be publishing a more deplorable book this year; if so, I pity whoever has to review it. Chong is lucky: Bad writing isn’t a crime. If it were, he’d deserve a lot more than nine months in the pen for it.

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The best part of the book (in relative terms) concerns Chong’s impoverished childhood, which included a mother who suffered from TB, a father with his own physical problems and a stint in a Canadian orphanage. To his credit, Chong never blames his later problems on this Dickensian youth. Indeed, his good attitude, sense of humor and spirituality appear to have served him well in dealing with life’s problems.

That is, until the cops showed up. Since 1971, Chong’s entire career has involved making jokes about using marijuana. In addition, he owned and operated businesses, including Nice Dreams Enterprises, that manufactured bongs. Yet when federal drug agents arrived at his Pacific Palisades home in 2003 bearing search warrants, Chong claims, he was shocked, which either proves that he is fibbing or that prolonged pot use dulls the senses to a greater degree than was ever expected.

At first, one hopes Chong is merely joking when, for example, he writes that this was a “political raid,” part of a “war on the hippie culture, and on the poor, black, and brown people,” waged by “the repressive Republican society that now ruled America”; or when he calls members of the current administration “right-wing Christian devil worshippers.” Surely this is just part of his dazed and confused act.

But the book makes it clear that Chong’s act is neither a joke nor a stretch.

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While talking to the Drug Enforcement Administration agent leading the raid, Chong writes that he saw himself as “Anne Frank talking to Herr Mengele.”

Later, he writes, “For the first time, I felt like I could really understand what the European Jews suffered under Hitler, and this was all happening in America in 2003.”

Relating a bong arrest to the Holocaust probably makes sense to Chong. But then loopy notions often make sense to those under the influence.

“On the morning of the raid, I was made the enemy of the Republican Christian Right. In the interest of protecting their sheep, the government selected me -- Tommy Chong, dangerous stoner, comedian -- as the poster boy for their Big Brother campaign. It would be laughable if it weren’t true.” That it is neither true nor laughable never seems to occur to the oblivious Chong.

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As fractured a thinker as he is a writer, Chong’s prose is hard to follow, and his details are fuzzy: It’s never clear if his mother was Scottish or Ukrainian, or whether he wanted to fight the charges or is even aware that he broke the law. Reading Chong is like being buttonholed by the fried guest at the reggae party who wants to explain things to you; he’s the stoned guy you can’t quite seem to get away from.

Like many who find themselves behind bars, Chong did not particularly like it. The food is bad, there is no privacy, and the other inmates are not all nice guys. Sure, the bocce court at the minimum security prison was fun to play on, and the guards were accommodating, but it wasn’t as comfortable as home. Bummer.

Being incarcerated for resisting imperial power or because of one’s sexual preference or getting sent to the gulag for dissenting opinions are searing human tragedies that inspired brave acts of artistic resistance. Selling bongs over state lines just doesn’t carry the same moral weight. Chong is no Gandhi, no matter how hard he tries to convince us otherwise. In the end, the book only confirms what those of us who enjoyed Cheech & Chong back in the day always suspected: Cheech was the talented one.


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