Is U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan the meanest movie critic in the country? Before her negative review of the Extreme Associates adult video catalog, she gave a thumbs-down to actor/comedian/stoner icon Tommy Chong for his role in the operation of Nice Dreams Enterprises, a family business that manufactured and distributed bongs, urinalysis kits, and related products.
Chong's home was raided in February 2003 as part of the Justice Department's nationwide crackdown against 55 companies and individuals who, according to a rarely enforced federal law, were illegally selling drug paraphernalia over the Internet. In May 2003, Chong pleaded guilty to the charge of conspiracy to distribute paraphernalia, and on October 8, 2003, he started serving a nine-month sentence at Taft Correctional Institution, a privately run federal prison in central California. Chong also received a $20,000 fine and forfeited $103,000; when he's released in July 2004 he'll be on probation for one year.
"He wasn't the biggest supplier. He was a relatively new player," Buchanan said at the time of Chong's sentencing. "But he had the ability to market products like no other."
Thanks to quotes like that, and the fact that Chong received a harsher sentence than anyone else who was caught in the crackdown, many people have taken up his cause, with Web sites like freetommychong.org charging that the 65-year-old comedian is being "unfairly targeted for prosecution because of his celebrity status."
But Buchanan insists this isn't the case. "This was a long-term investigation where the goal was to identify all the companies that were marketing these products over the Internet," she says. "Over time we compiled a list of companies, and Nice Dreams Enterprises happened to be one of them."
According to Buchanan, the Justice Department decided to prosecute Chong rather than his son Paris, who ran Nice Dreams, because the department's investigation showed that Chong had bankrolled the company, actively promoted its products, and "ultimately had greater involvement in it than any other individual"—even though he wasn't an officer of the company or a member of its board of directors. As for the relatively long sentence, Buchanan points out that Chong's case didn't make it to trial, or even to a grand jury. Instead, he and his attorney negotiated a deal before a formal indictment was brought against him. "If he'd gone to trial and been convicted, he could have gotten even longer," Buchanan argues.
While support for Chong grows on the Internet, there's at least one other person besides Buchanan who shows little sympathy for the prisoner's plight. "Someone wanted to do a story for High Times about me and Tommy Chong," says Extreme Associates founder Robert Zicari. "I said, 'Dude, I love Cheech and Chong movies, and when I used to smoke weed they were the best things to watch. But what he did was still illegal!' Selling drug paraphernalia, and telling a federal agent that this pipe is good for this type of marijuana, that's illegal. Making a fuck tape is not illegal. If there's a federal law that says a girl sucking a dick on camera is a crime, I'll abide by it. But as long as they tell me, 'Well, it's not illegal here, but it is illegal there,' well, what's the difference? And until then, do I wanna do something with Tommy Chong? Why? He's fucking guilty! I don't want to do anything with someone who's guilty."