Weed Watch: Will Chong's Freedom Go Up in Smoke?

Weed Watch: Will Chong's Freedom Go Up in Smoke?
Posted by CN Staff on September 24, 2003 at 22:32:52 PT
By Jordon Smith
Source: Austin Chronicle 
A little more than two months after he was busted by federal agents on Feb. 24 as part of Operation Pipe Dreams, the U.S. Department of Justice's drug paraphernalia sting, Tommy Chong appeared in court in western Pennsylvania to plead guilty to selling glass pipes and bongs over the Internet via his California-based company, Nice Dreams Enterprises. Chong, one-half of the legendary comedy duo Cheech and Chong, pled guilty, he told the Chronicle last week, because he is guilty. "Am I saying I did that?" he asked. "Yes, and I'm sorry I did that. Will I do it again? No."
But when Chong returned to court for sentencing -- on Sept. 11, no less, a juxtaposition that made the government's much-hyped bong bust seem even more absurd -- Mary Beth Buchanan, U.S. attorney for Pennsylvania's western district, used Chong's pot-smoking character -- familiar from movies like Up in Smoke and, more recently, a recurring role on Fox's That '70s Show -- as evidence of Chong's "frivolous" attitude toward drug-law enforcement. Chong was then sentenced to nine months in federal prison and ordered to pay a $20,000 fine. Under a federal law banning paraphernalia sales, the 65-year-old comedian could have faced up to three years in the pen and a $250,000 fine. But the lighter sentence is hardly any consolation to Chong and his supporters. "They used [my character] against me in court. They said it showed my attitude," Chong said. "They're absolutely right. And I've told this to my son and my lawyer: I can take responsibility for breaking the law, but the one thing I won't give up are my convictions" -- including his belief that the government's policies regarding marijuana are draconian. Chong is appealing his sentence. Back in February, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the fruitful culmination of a pair of fed-led undercover drug paraphernalia investigations. After more than a year of work on the two sting ops, code-named Operation Pipe Dreams and Operation Headhunter, investigators indicted more than 50 people on charges of "trafficking in illegal drug paraphernalia," Ashcroft said in a prepared statement. "In all, 45 drug paraphernalia businesses have had their inventories seized, effectively putting them out of business." Flanked by the leaders of the Drug Enforcement Administration and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, as well as U.S. Attorney Buchanan, Ashcroft described the scourge of drug paraphernalia. "It is troubling enough for parents to realize that stores with these illegal products may be operating in their neighborhoods," he said. "But it is even more frightening when parents understand that with a click of the mouse, a child's room or college dorm room could become the showroom in which drug paraphernalia merchants can advertise, market, and sell illegal products." Cue the scary music. Under federal law it is illegal to sell or transport -- via mail or any other "facility of interstate commerce" -- drug paraphernalia, which the U.S. Code defines as products "primarily intended or designed to be used" for ingesting illegal drugs. Traditionally, merchants have had some leeway to sell items that the feds consider "paraphernalia" by marketing them for smoking tobacco or burning incense -- even though the U.S. Supreme Court in 1994 called those uses "contrived." But local law enforcement generally has discretion over whether to make selling pipes and bongs the subject of a criminal investigation or prosecution -- depending on where bong regulation fits within a jurisdiction's law-enforcement priorities. Both Pennsylvania and Iowa have a history of considering these cases important, which goes a long way to explaining why Operation Pipe Dreams and Operation Headhunter were centered in Buchanan's western Pennsylvania district. "The general word we got from the lawyer we use," Chong said, "was that as long as you don't ship to two states, Pennsylvania and Iowa, you'll be OK." Chong learned after he was arrested that federal investigators tried at least four times over the course of a year to compel his company to sell and send a Chong-autographed pipe to the Keystone State. "The DEA, when I was arrested, they told me that they'd never really made a sale before, that every time they put in a request that we would turn it down -- based on the fact that [Chong Glass doesn't] sell to Pennsylvania," he said. In the end, it was a request from a different return address -- in Beaver Falls, Pa. -- which made it past the scrutiny of a new employee, who unknowingly shipped the glass to federal authorities. Chong's Gardena, Calif., warehouse was raided on Feb. 24; investigators seized the company's inventory and over $103,000 in cash. Despite this, Chong's lawyer Richard Hirsch didn't argue that the government's case against Chong was based on entrapment. Entrapment "is when you make or coerce someone into [doing] something [by] overbearing their will," he said. "If someone is in the business of marketing, manufacturing, selling, and shipping bongs, that doesn't apply." The government did "coerce the shipping" to net his client, said Hirsch -- but he saw that as "unseemly," rather than illegal. But Austin appellate attorney Keith Hampton, who is also the legislative director for the Texas defense bar, said he would have argued entrapment during Chong's sentencing. "Why did [the federal investigators] have to work so hard to get him to do it? It would have underscored the argument," Hampton said, against imposing a harsh punishment. Chong may already have the basis for a strong appeal of his sentence, citing his Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment and perhaps his First Amendment rights as well. Two previous Pipe Dreams defendants pled guilty to similar charges; each was sentenced to six months of house arrest. So far, Chong is the only one to get jail time -- which he and his supporters argue is a response to his iconic status and his political beliefs. "They used Up in Smoke as an example of [Chong's] lifetime commitment to ridiculing marijuana laws," said Hirsch. "They are blurring the line between fact and fiction. It's like saying that since Arnold Schwarzenegger plays characters that blow things up, that if he is ever accused of a crime they can use that persona against him," he said. "That it somehow carries over." Hampton agrees that "they can't punish him because of his opinions. There is a long line of Supreme Court cases on this." While Chong is now working with inner-city kids teaching about the dangers of drug use, and has been asked to act as a spokesman for juvenile drug court operations, those opinions have not changed. "They are legislating against something that grows naturally. Ninety million people smoke pot regularly -- that's a huge culture," Chong said, adding that federal prohibition is "like putting a stop light in the middle of the freeway -- people ignore it because it makes no sense. There is no other purpose for it than to make you break the law and then to punish you for it." Source: Austin Chronicle (TX)Author: Jordon SmithPublished: September 26, 2003Copyright: 2003 Austin Chronicle Corp.Contact: louis auschron.comWebsite: Articles:Chong To Appeal Prison Sentence Chong Gets The Joint Cracks Down on Tommy Chong
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Comment #9 posted by E_Johnson on September 25, 2003 at 16:20:35 PT
I feel a little sorry for the DEA
They will never accomplish anything measurable in their agency for everything they spend. Their lives are nothing but unfulfilled stress. What do they have for relieving their stress?Alcohol, Vicodin, television, porn, and ranting about the druggies.They don't have cannabis, and that means no matter how hard they hammer on us, we're actually better off. We're able to handle this awful stress without making our bodies as sick as they are making their own.
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Comment #8 posted by FoM on September 25, 2003 at 11:10:49 PT
Oh please don't burn you C&C stuff up. I understand some of you are upset but you might regret not having it all later. Packing it up and out of the way would work.
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Comment #7 posted by Trekkie on September 25, 2003 at 11:04:26 PT
Yeah, I remember that, too. I lost a lot of respect for Tommy when I heard that. If Tommy stays fast to his "convictions" (and not his fear of being convicted), and tells it like it is, he will gain some of my respect back.
But, if he holds to his quick plea-bargaining statement of being "Borg-ified" into another mouthpiece of the Sched 1 lie machine - I'm burning every item of Cheech & Chong memorobelia I have.
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Comment #6 posted by E_Johnson on September 25, 2003 at 08:13:16 PT
Suing for malpractice is an appeal strategy
If he sued his corrupt stupid lawyer for legal malpractice, that might be grounds for an appeal.
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Comment #5 posted by kaptinemo on September 25, 2003 at 05:59:35 PT:
I smell a plant...and I don't mean cannabis
I'd very much like to know who that 'new employee' was. The Feds spent a lot of moolah to get Chong. Part of that had to be involved in 'intelligence' gathering. Usually that means inserting someone undercover. I'm sure that all employees of Chong's had to have been told not to ship to PA or IA. Chong's lawyer said not to. The DEA tried for years to get him nailed for this, and couldn't. And this oh-so-conveniently happens? 
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Comment #4 posted by WolfgangWylde on September 25, 2003 at 04:24:17 PT
"...but the one thing I won't give up are my...
...convictions". I certainly hope Mr. Chong wins his appeal, but let's not rewrite history. Ol' Tommy offered to become another celebrity puppet of the Drug War if they didn't send him to prison.
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Comment #3 posted by goneposthole on September 25, 2003 at 03:27:28 PT
the feather in Ashcroft's cap
is one from a dead, rotted crow. A crow that he will eat, feathers and intestines all.
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Comment #2 posted by Virgil on September 25, 2003 at 02:34:30 PT
What did the DEA accomplish?
The DEAwatch website showed continued and agonizing displeasure with Operation Pipe Dreams and the fact that the DEA and ASScroft got a prison sentence for Chong is no accomplishment. When you have unconstitutional acts as everyday practice with a questionably Constitutional agency that lies and deceives for its sorry existance, they may boast of anything like a moron that comes with a D- and brags he did not fail.So Chong is cannon fodder like a soldier in another rich man's war. There is just one less shell in the prohibitionist arsenal. To brag of casualty when they hit the equivalent of a hospital because they knew it had to be occupied and was bigger than the sides of a hundred barns is more patheticness from our government in blindness to creating a more perfect union. They are telling everyone that they could care less about the best way of things and insist on the worst in their effort to keep things upside down. They claim victory and chant ON WITH FAILURE.
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Comment #1 posted by E_Johnson on September 25, 2003 at 00:00:48 PT
Maybe Chong should sue Hirsch for malpractice
"Despite this, Chong's lawyer Richard Hirsch didn't argue that the government's case against Chong was based on entrapment. Entrapment "is when you make or coerce someone into [doing] something [by] overbearing their will," he said. "If someone is in the business of marketing, manufacturing, selling, and shipping bongs, that doesn't apply." The government did "coerce the shipping" to net his client, said Hirsch -- but he saw that as "unseemly," rather than illegal.
"I am not a lawyer of course but I have always heard that one job of a criminal defense lawyer is to NOT SIDE WITH THE PROSECUTION.Just a thought...A defense lawyer is supposed to give his or her client the most vigorous defense possible, not the most seemly defense possible.
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