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The grass likely won't be greener on the other side

THE BALTIMORE SUN

This is another pot story starring Tommy Chong. So it should be funny.

Not to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, who announced dozens of indictments under "Operation Pipe Dreams" in February. Not to Mary Beth Buchanan, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, who heads Ashcroft's advisory committee and turned up in court in Pittsburgh to personally accept Chong's guilty plea. Not to Assistant U.S. District Attorney Mary Houghton, who prosecuted the case. And definitely not to Chong, who will be spending the next nine months in federal prison.

On Wednesday, Chong turned himself in to the Taft Correctional Institution, near Bakersfield, Calif. He had pleaded guilty in May to selling bongs over the Internet through his family company, Nice Dreams Enterprises.

The severity of his sentence has left Chong, his family and friends dazed and convinced that the government prosecuted the wrong man - the archetypal pothead he played as half of Cheech and Chong on comedy records like 1973's Los Cochinos and in hit movies like 1978's Up in Smoke, or the doped-out hippie he's played in comedy clubs for the last decade with his wife, Shelby, and his Family Stoned Band, or maybe Leo, the aging, waaaay-out photo lab owner he plays on Fox's That '70s Show. All of those Chongs lived for one thing: to acquire and consume superior marijuana.

"It's unfortunate that the government can't distinguish between the character I have been playing for years and my real persona," Chong said in one of several interviews over the last week. "It's a very helpless feeling. It is a character. I'm mystified. That is why I have no defense."

His longtime partner, Cheech Marin, who is slated to write a new Cheech and Chong movie with him for New Line, finds the situation absurd.

"I feel like I'm stuck in one of my own movies," Marin said. "These are the same kinds of simpletons we were fighting when we made [Up in Smoke], in terms of a repressive administration. That Tommy Chong is going to prison for this is a total miscarriage of justice."

His heavy-lidded eyes still give him a mellowed-out vibe, and he still has a subversive sense of humor, but today's senior citizen Chong, 65, is a meditating, woodworking, charity-giving, inner-city-youth-teaching father of six who has been married to the same woman for more than 30 years. He practices Bikram yoga and hasn't gotten high since the bust. "I'm on a protest fast," he said.

He is barely recognizable as the doobie-obsessed goofball of his Cheech and Chong days. Gone is his trademark tangle of hippie hair, replaced by a trim gray beard and hair cut neatly to his shoulders.

Fiora - just Fiora - who has shown Chong's sculptures and installations at her Ghettogloss gallery in Los Angeles, considers him a talented woodworker and photographer who continues to exercise his First Amendment rights in all his creative endeavors. She dismisses those who say his artworks just look like bongs, or water pipes.

"Tommy is a really organic guy. I think he is about organic visuals," she said. "People think his flower vases are something else, but they are flower vases. I don't run a smoke shop. I run an art gallery."

Chong visited a healer last week and performed four shows at a comedy club in Lansing, Mich., over the weekend. He shopped for prison necessities on Monday, and spent the rest of the day in a photo shoot for Vanity Fair. He took his final tango lesson that evening and chatted with a reporter between dances - captured on video by his friend Josh Gilbert, filming the last free days of Tommy Chong for a documentary.

The court made Chong promise he would not profit financially from his case, said his attorney, Richard Hirsch. That means, probably, not weaving what he calls "the incident" into his comedy act. Still, last weekend in Lansing, Chong said, he couldn't help it. "I had to," he said. "I talked about how I wasn't supposed to talk about it."

The Web site for Chong Glass (which is preserved on another site called The Memory Hole) offers a colorful array of handblown glass pipes and bongs with whimsical forms and names such as "Tijuana," "Cheech," "Big Bamboo" and "Babe." Each bong has Chong's name and face on it. According to a news release from the U.S. attorney's office, "Bombay" sold for $230 and was described as "too big for me, but you heavy hitters will definitely enjoy."

While all bongs sold by Chong Glass and Nice Dreams were labeled "For Tobacco Use Only," a rarely enforced federal statute specifically names bongs as drug paraphernalia, and in 1994 the Supreme Court ruled that those who sell bongs across state lines can be sent to prison. The Justice Department under Ashcroft has expanded efforts to crack down on such trafficking.

Chong pleaded guilty in Pittsburgh on Sept. 11 to one count of conspiracy to sell drug paraphernalia. In addition to serving time, he was ordered to pay a $20,000 fine and to forfeit $100,000 from the company's business account. Chong Glass, in Gardena, Calif., is now shuttered.

The Justice Department announced similar charges against 55 people, and so far 11 have been sentenced. Their terms range from a year of probation - including six months of home detention - to five months in federal prison. To date, none has received a sentence as severe as Chong's.

"It would be like if Arnold [Schwarzenegger] were charged with an assault, and you said, because he beats people up in Terminator movies, he is guilty," Hirsch said.

Houghton, the prosecutor, dismisses such interpretations.

"His character did not commit the crime," she said. "That is him as a person, deciding to commit those acts. That wasn't part of a script. What he did do is go across the country talking on the radio and signing autographs to promote the sale of his bongs. He used his fame to promote items of drug paraphernalia to children and college students. You could buy your bong and Tommy Chong would be there to sign it. His likeness was on all the bongs."

She also denies that Chong was targeted because he's a celebrity.

The maximum sentence possible in the Operation Pipe Dreams cases is three years in prison and $250,000 in fines. Houghton said Chong did not provide information that could assist in further investigations, but he accepted responsibility and exhibited a "certain amount of contrition."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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