Free Crack Pipes? Time to Pardon Tommy Chong

by | Feb 14, 2022

Free Crack Pipes? Time to Pardon Tommy Chong

by | Feb 14, 2022

tommy chong at hash bash

Conservative publications have accused the Biden administration of planning to distribute $30 million worth of free crack pipes and other paraphernalia as part of its effort to achieve “racial equity” among “underserved communities.” The original notice for federal grants included provisions to pay for “safe smoking kits/supplies” but the Biden administration insists that no federal funds will be specifically used to purchase crack pipes. But taxpayers will get screwed anyway thanks to federal distribution of free condoms under the same program.

While “harm reduction” is the stated goal of  that federal program, the Biden administration continues to ignore the vast harms caused by federal drug prohibitions, despite record numbers of deaths from drug overdoses last year.

The latest federal drug war farce should be a reminder of one of the biggest drug war publicity stunts of this century. On the eve of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the most decisive federal attack ever made on pipes and bowls often used for smoking marijuana, tobacco, and other substances. Ashcroft bewailed, “The illegal drug paraphernalia industry has invaded the homes of families across the country without their knowledge.” Ashcroft did not offer any evidence that pipe sellers, unlike government agents, were planting evidence in people’s homes.

Operation Pipe Dreams involved more than 1,200 federal agents conducting raids in Pennsylvania, Texas, Oregon, Iowa, California, and Idaho. Fifty-five people and 10 companies were indicted in the biggest attack on glass bowls in American history. The feds confiscated 124 tons of what was alleged to be drug paraphernalia, including plastic baggies that could potentially be used to package illicit drugs.

Ashcroft’s prosecutors used a rarely enforced 1980s laws that criminalized the sale of drug paraphernalia. Seizure fever permeated the bong attack. U.S. Deputy Marshal Dale Ortmann commented, “This was the biggest push in asset seizures that I’ve seen in eight years.” U.S. Deputy Marshal Gary Richards noted that, thanks to cash grabbed from businesses that were raided, “We have access to money that will pay for inventory and storage fees” for the 124 tons of goodies. Apparently, this was the only “boondoggle test” that Justice Department masterminds applied to this case.

The biggest catch of Operation Pipe Dreams was 64-year-old Tommy Chong, the older half of the legendary, Grammy Award-winning comic duo Cheech and Chong, who lampooned drug warriors from the 1960s to the 1980s. Their movie “Up in Smoke” was some of the best political-cultural humor of the 1970s. Chong’s company, Chong Glass, sold ornate bongs that cost hundreds of dollars over the Internet; a Los Angeles art gallery had an exhibit of Chong’s top-of-the-line products. The Drug Enforcement Administration set up a phony shop in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, and ordered bongs and other material from Chong Glass and then nailed Chong for shipping paraphernalia across state lines.

The DEA hit Chong’s Pacific Palisades, California, house at 5:30 a.m., while Chong and his wife were asleep. Chong later commented, “It was a full-on raid. Helicopters, them bangin’ on the door. They come in with loaded automatic weapons, flak jackets, helmets, visors, about 20 agents. They bust in the house. They took all my cash, took out my computers, and they took all the glass bongs they could find.”

Chong’s arrest sparked ridicule far and wide, including barbs from both David Letterman and Jay Leno. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette snipped, “With the nation on Orange Alert at the time, the only bearded men most Americans wanted to see in custody were members of al-Qaida.” Though Chong controlled much less than 1 percent of the national bong market, busting him guaranteed the feds massive publicity.

Chong continued doing his comedy routine pending his trial. When asked his views on Operation Pipe Dreams, he replied, “I feel pretty sad, but it seems to be the only weapons of mass destruction they’ve found this year.”

On September 11, 2003, the second anniversary of the infamous attacks, Chong was sentenced to nine months in federal prison, fined $20,000 for selling bongs and other drug paraphernalia, and forced to surrender $103,514 in cash to the feds. Chong’s lawyer asked for probation, considering that this was Chong’s first offense and that it was a nonviolent crime. U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan (a Bush appointee) urged a harsh sentence, in part because of Chong’s history of “trivializing law enforcement” with his humor. If Operation Pipe Dreams did not deserve to be trivialized, then the United States is a theocracy, with worship of government the official religion.

Chong was also forced to promise the judge that he would not profit from his arrest and prosecution. This effectively destroyed Chong’s freedom of speech to discuss his case in future comedy performances. At least in Chong’s case, mocking the feds would be a federal offense.

Even though Chong was not the biggest player in the paraphernalia game, he received a harsher sentence than any of the other people who had been convicted in Operational Pipe Dreams at the time of his trial. Chong’s partner, Cheech Marin, derided the prosecutors: “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. The administration should hang its head in shame.”

In a 2005 interview with the Los Angeles Weekly, Chong observed, “The American justice system is just riddled with lies and inconsistencies.” He explained his prosecution: “They just wanted to show the entertainment world that we’re vulnerable. ‘You do something that we don’t like, you’re going to end up in jail.’ That’s the message they put out.” Chong was philosophical about his imprisonment: “I call this the Tsunami Government. This government is just like the tsunami. It’s coming in, it’s going to wreak havoc and desolation, and then it’ll go out. It’ll disappear. So we just have to live through it.”

The principle behind Operation Pipe Dreams was that federal agents have the right to destroy the lives of anyone who does something that politicians disapprove. This is the same toxic principle that has been used to arrest more than ten million of nonviolent marijuana smokers since the Reagan era.

Regardless of what sort of “harm reduction” handouts the Biden administration distributes, the least Biden can do is pardon Chong (who served his prison sentence long ago) and any other nonviolent offender whose record is stained by a convict for distributing paraphernalia. It would be far better for Biden to call an end to the disastrous federal drug war. But we are unlikely to see such courage or wisdom from a man who, during his decades in the Senate, was renowned for championing punitive crime bills to impose his favorite cure: “Lock the S.O.B.s up!”

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About Jim Bovard

Jim Bovard is the author of Public Policy Hooligan (2012), Attention Deficit Democracy (2006), Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty (1994), and 7 other books. He is a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Playboy, Washington Post, and other publications. His articles have been publicly denounced by the chief of the FBI, the Postmaster General, the Secretary of HUD, and the heads of the DEA, FEMA, and EEOC and numerous federal agencies.

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