Tommy Chong is one of the most famous pot smokers in the world. He has been smoking marijuana since he was 18 years old. Now 76, he says the plant changed his life after those first few puffs from a joint in a jazz club up in his hometown Calgary, Canada. And, ever since that first fateful toke, Chong has used the plant as a platform for comedy, social justice, and his entrepreneurial ventures.

As the comedy duo, Tommy Chong and Richard "Cheech" Marin were famous for their stoner humor ever since their movie Up In Smoke became a surprise smash hit in 1978. More recently, Chong has started multiple (legal) weed-related business ventures, including his dispensary debit card the Green Card, his cannabis deodorizing clothing wipes Smoke Swipes, a smoking accessory line, and a trademarked strain of cannabis he's making in partnership with California-based Dark Horse Genetics. Despite a prison sentence last decade for selling bongs, Chong freely admits the cannabis plant has made his career. 

Out in Denver over the 4/20 weekend, Chong partnered with Colorado Cannabis Tours, founded by entrepreneur Michael Eymer, to give special tour packages for tourists who want to see the marijuana industry while chilling with the famous toker. Inc. met up with Chong before the tour to find out Chong's secrets to building a successful personal brand.

Be authentic.

Since those Cheech and Chong movies in 1970s and 80s, Chong has always publicly supported marijuana and criticized the government for what he believes to be a costly and backwards-thinking War on Drugs. He says the foundation to any personal brand is honesty.

"I'm authentic, that's the key to anything. I am what you see. I'm not pretending to be anything. I am that guy," he says.

Focus on your passion.

Chong says he's always taken his work seriously, be it Cheech and Chong's movies and tours or his businesses in the marijuana industry, and recognizes that it's crucial to have a passion for whatever it is that you do. "I have a love for what I do. I love marijuana. I treat it as what it is, a sacred herb," he says. "All the federal government needs to do is the get it off Schedule I and get out of the way."

Keep your head up.

Chong says that if you are fighting a cause, you're going to go through trials and tribulations. Having been a life-long supporter of cannabis legalization as a celebrity, one whose work made his name synonymous with pot, he feels he has been targeted by the authorities.

But, he says, "it's my attitude that no matter what happens to you in life, you can learn from it. You can prosper from it, too," he says.

His big test came when he was arrested and put in prison for his hand-blown bong business Chong Glass/Nice Dreams. Back in 2003, the Drug Enforcement Agency raided Chong's home and Chong Glass in California, which was part of a larger raid of 55 other marijuana bong and pipe companies known as Operation Pipe Dream. Out of the 55 other bong makers, Chong was the only one to be prosecuted. Today, the operation is sometimes cited as a political move to persecute Chong for his movies, which. among other things, mocked U.S. government anti-drug efforts. Even though the raid now seems like a tremendous waste of resources for one celebrity bong maker, it was very real for Chong, who was sentenced to nine months in prison.

Chong says that although the experience of being arrested and doing time was unpleasant, he says it was worth it because he was standing up for the legalization of cannabis.

His bunkmate in prison was Jordan Belfort, the infamous stockbroker whose book inspired Martin Scorsese's The Wolf Of Wall Street. Belfort says he wrote his book because Chong inspired him to tell his story, to not be afraid or ashamed.

"I reminded him of what he was, not who he was. And what Jordan Belfort was is a genius," he says. "I reminded him he doesn't have to steal from anyone, he just has to write about his past. All he had to do was change his aim."

Chong says prison gave him time to reflect on life and to also show how ridiculous, and costly to the public, prohibition of cannabis is. Chong says more than anything the experience taught him to be thankful for what he's achieved.

"We have ups and downs in life. Everything that I do will not be successful, and I don't expect it to be. Anything really successful will be a surprise. In the end, it's the lifestyle I am maintaining that I am most proud of," he says. "I am proud of being the oldest guy on "Dancing With the Stars." I am proud to say all of what I have is thanks to marijuana. No matter what you do to me, I've won."

Published on: Apr 21, 2015