Cheech Marin is cool with pot and America’s ‘middle,’ but don’t get him started on Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions
It’s raining across the Pacific Palisades and Cheech Marin is riffing on wine connoisseurs, gangsters, Kim Jong Un’s bottle-cap haircut, the Ku Klux Klan and the man he calls “Mr. Peanut,” better known as Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, who has been an annoyance to the comedian’s happy, chilled quest to smoke dope without fear of federal agents storming in.
Marin, in truth, is not too worried about that prospect. Marijuana is legal in California, and much of the country backs its recreational use. But the federal government classifies it as a criminal narcotic, and Sessions has threatened a crackdown on growers and dispensers. Marin has been bitter toward Republican attorneys general since 2003, when his longtime partner Tommy Chong was sentenced to jail for selling bongs over the internet.
Former U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft “sent him to prison for nine months,” Marin said. “Tommy was the smallest seller, but he was the No. 1 face, and they needed a face for their campaign.”
Despite Sessions’ warnings and the surreal cacophony of the nation’s politics, Marin is mellow as he watches intemperate clouds roll across his window. His eyes agleam, his voice leavened with the smoke of countless joints, the 71-year-old comic, writer, art collector, actor, potter and son of a Los Angeles cop is sanguine and contemplative about life’s curious trajectories. The mustached, unrepentant reprobate of Cheech & Chong’s 1970s marijuana movies is now a spokesman for the state’s multibillion-dollar weed industry. Marin detects not even a wisp of irony.
“Cheech & Chong represent the middle, the vast majority,” he says, making coffee in a scoured kitchen. “We always represented the norm; you just haven’t realized it yet. We were reflecting what we saw on the streets. And now over 60% of Americans think marijuana should be legalized. Sixty percent of the public does not agree on anything else.”
Cheech & Chong movies captured and caricatured a generation that had embraced drugs during the turmoil of the Vietnam War and civil rights protests. The comedians floated in trippy consciousness, a shift from the conventional whiskey-scented “Mad Men” era to “Up in Smoke,” their 1978 comedy in which they drove a van made of pot across the Mexican border into the U.S. The once rebellious has become mainstream, so much so that Marin is an avatar of family wholesomeness as the voices of Banzai the hyena in Disney’s “The Lion King” and a corrections officer in the new Disney-Pixar “Coco.”
He’s been a recurring presence in TV and movies over the years, including his wisecracking caddie to Kevin Costner’s washed-up golfer in “Tin Cup.” He will appear in the upcoming “The War With Grandpa,” starring Robert De Niro and Uma Thurman; in 2015 he played Edward in the popular television series “Jane the Virgin.” Marin, who is married with three children, including a stepson, also spends time on the road with Chong in an evolving comedy act that began decades ago at the Shanghai Junk nightclub in Vancouver.
Dope, as some of his conservative critics may have hoped, has not dulled him. He relishes playing the foil. A conversation can veer from nuclear war to 19th century politics to healthcare in Appalachia, as if he has slid beside you on a park bench with a newspaper and more than a few canny opinions about the world and the exasperating lot of men (and a few women) who run it.
In the film “Dark Harvest,” released this month on streaming platforms, Marin plays Ricardo, or “Latin Heat,” a pot smoker who runs a garden shop and is skilled at bud blooms, hydroponics and THC potencies. He is a voice of reason for Carter (James Hutson), a grower battling cops and a killer on the eve of marijuana legalization. Written and directed by Hutson, the smart thriller takes advantage of Marin’s iconic status, allowing him to play a soft-spoken sage who has imbibed, endured and kept his sly sense of humor.
“I thought it’d be cool to see Cheech in a pot movie where he was playing a [serious] role,” says Hutson, a onetime pot grower who sold his house and hired a small crew to make the film. “The audience knows he’s a weed guy and they haven’t seen him touch weed in the movies for 40 years, and I thought he’d be believable in an interesting way.”
Let’s talk immigration
The rain falls harder in the Palisades, drumming kitchen windows and slanting toward the ocean. Marin watches it for a moment, turning in his chair, quiet as a breath, until something funny hits him (beating Anderson Cooper on “Celebrity Jeopardy!”) and he laughs. The paintings on the walls — he’s creating a 60,000 square-foot Chicano art center in Riverside — brighten the gray light, and the living room attests to the wealth that allows a man to gaze from a hilltop beyond canyons and spooled-out shadows stretching below. His T-shirt reads: “It will always be good.”
His autobiography “Cheech Is Not My Real Name ... But Don’t Call Me Chong,” which includes chapters on moving to Canada to avoid the Vietnam draft and listening for gunshots on a childhood night in L.A., was published last year. He’s working on a series of essays about immigration entitled “Come in Peace, We Have You Surrounded.” He’s not fond of the English-only movement, mocking it as not inclusive or representative of the country’s history.
“We’d have to change the names of our states,” he says. “California. Arizona. Montana. Nevada. Los Angeles. San Diego. San Antonio. San Francisco. What it brings into relief is the essential Latinization of our country since its inception and recognition of the contribution of the Latino world.” He jokes that the pronunciation of marijuana — a Mexican Spanish word — riles conservative, anti-immigration politicians. “But who wouldn’t want to be the Marijuana state?”
“Everybody I knew in my generation was smoking pot.”
— Cheech Marin
“Everybody I knew in my generation was smoking pot,” says Marin, who appears in a California government video on how to set up a cannabis business and has lent his name to Cheech’s Private Stash, a line of cannabis products distributed by Redwood Cultivation. “Lenny Bruce used to have this line: ‘I know marijuana will eventually be legal because every lawyer that I know smokes it.’ That was in the late ’50 and early ’60s. Not naming names, but I know my lawyer smokes more dope than I do.”
“The Ku Klux Klan smokes dope.”
He laughs again, takes a breath and turns to the idiosyncrasies of the pot trade. He’s intrigued by its marketing and medicinal possibilities for a generation that came of age with it decades ago. “You have an aging baby boomer population,” he says. “That’s what they need. They don’t want to be hooked on opioids or any other kind of medications being fostered by the pharmaceutical industry.”
But he worries about vulnerability of pot dispensaries, many of which he says do $1 million a month in business and are wary of using federal banks. “You need an armored car to get the money from the dispensary to somewhere,” he says. “They’re under increasing attack by gangsters and outlaws. They want that money and they know the government is not going to come to your aid. It makes it a risky investment.”
Far from the days when forlorn buds were sold in crumpled plastic baggies carried around in the pants of young men with little understanding of THC levels, today’s pot smoker, says Marin, is knowledgeable about the product, consulting websites and cultivation manuals and easing into the perfect high.
“They’re like wine connoisseurs,” he says. “You know, I heard a wine guy say, ‘There’s an immediate hit and then it marches around in your mouth.’” He chuckles. He’s asked what’s most important to a pot smoker. His eyes glow and he slips to sarcasm. “Flavor,” he says. “I smoke pot for the flavor.” What are your favorite flavors? “Free is a really good flavor. That greatly enhances any pot.”
He laughs, riding the shtick a bit longer.
“I like that new flavor, free.”
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