Despite the Movies, Godfather of Ganja Cheech Marin Defies What It Means to be a Stoner

Godfather of Ganja Cheech Marin. Photo by Allan Amato/stylist: Xine Trevino

“Hey, you wanna get high, man?”

The camera pulls back to show a 1964 Chevrolet Impala Super Sport driving along the coast.

“Does Howdy Doody got wooden balls, man?”

“I’ve got a joint here that I’ve been saving for a special occasion.”

The next shot shows the infamous godfathers of cannabis: Richard “Cheech” Marin, with a majestic handlebar mustache, is driving the car and singing, “I’m nothing but a love machine.” He has guacamole in his shoe. In the passenger seat, Tommy Chong lights up a Maui-wowie doobie the size of a cardboard toilet-paper tube (and laced with “labrador”). Chong passes the joint, warning Cheech about the potency of the herb. Pretending the joint is flying, Cheech scoffs at Chong, informing him he’s been smoking since he was born. The motorist takes several hits and gets so high he can’t drive the car.

The Impala is stopped at a pole—one they’ve seemingly crashed into—on the median of the roadway, when Cheech starts having a panic attack. “I’ve never had dope like this before, man,” he says. “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe, man!”

Chong hands him some mysterious drugs, saying they’ll make him feel better. Cheech ingests what was handed to him only to find out he was given the wrong thing and ate a handful of LSD. Then the cops arrive and knock on the car window.

Everyone knows the ridiculous scene—and the hilarious, quotable lines that follow—from Up In Smoke, the stoner comedy that launched Cheech and Chong’s careers. Celebrating its 40th anniversary this month, the iconic film has become a means through which generations can relate—families watch it together. Up In Smoke is not only a cult favorite, but it’s also a fundamental piece in the patchwork of America’s cannabis history.

Some people in the cannabis world argue that Cheech and Chong’s roles were counterproductive in the way they helped shape and solidify the “stoner” stereotype. But Up In Smoke was one of the only popular pro-cannabis flicks—along with Easy Rider—to come out after Reefer Madness. The American culture needed it more than ever. It also acted as a proverbial middle finger to the government, the stigma and the damaging propaganda Henry Anslinger spawned.

Thus, Up In Smoke not only launched the comedic duo’s careers, but it also hurled them to the forefront of cannabis advocacy. And back in the ’70s—hell, any time before 2015, really—cannabis advocates (and activists) were the opposite of cool. They were the scuzzy, dingy leeches of society (read: hippies). But the common thread throughout Cheech and Chong’s legacy has always remained the same: “Just take a toke, and all your cares will go up in smoke.”

The stoner dudes are far more intellectual than their half-open eyes imply. Late last year, we spoke to Chong about his latest venture, the Blazer’s Cup, a legal cannabis festival showcasing live performances, vendors, cannabis breeders, and delicious herb and products, as well as a competition highlighting the best flower, edibles, concentrates, topicals and glassware. “I love anything where a bunch of people get together and talk and smoke and just celebrate the burning bush,” Chong said in November. “That’s what cannabis is all about.”

“The pope of pot” also wrote The I Chong: Meditations From the Joint, which chronicled his days in prison for selling bongs and other paraphernalia online. “I actually enjoyed my time in prison and learned a lot,” Chong says. “I never went to university or pursued higher education, so I kind of felt like I was in school when I went to jail.”

Cheech, however, has his hands in an array of different projects, including an impressive catalog of film and TV work. He’s the voice of the corrections officer in the Academy Award-winning Disney/Pixar film Coco, and he makes a cameo on an episode of the Netflix series Disjointed, a show about a woman (Kathy Bates) who opens a dispensary in Los Angeles and hires a team of budtenders to handle the day-to-day operations of a cannabis retail storefront, as well as all the inherent zaniness that accompanies such an establishment. He also has a role in Dark Harvest, a film about a cultivator who’s brutally murdered the night before legalization. The cultivator’s best friend, who’s also involved in the grow op, teams up with a narcotics investigator to find the killer. Cheech plays the best friend’s mentor, Ricardo, who advises against working with the cops to find the murderer—as any old-school cannabis-industry sage would.

“The movie has a lot of real-life situations, which is what I was most impressed with,” says Cheech, who hasn’t been in a cannabis film since 1983’s Still Smokin, the last Cheech and Chong movie. “It was an opportunity I received out of the blue from [James Hutson], who wrote, directed and starred in the film. I liked what the script portrayed about marijuana entering the mainstream and its authenticity. We used real weed and were in real grow operations—I honestly wish the movie was scratch-and-sniff so you could smell it at the same time.”

Dark Harvest earned a number of accolades in 2017 from renowned entities—including the Columbia Gorge International Film Festival, Oregon Independent Film Festival, Edmonton International Film Festival and New York City Cannabis Film Festival—and Cheech was a key factor in those victories. In the film, he’s not the handlebar mustachioed, baked-like-a-potato stoner dude. Instead, he plays a smart, savvy, serious character who understands the ropes of the cannabis underground, adding an unexpected depth to the flick.

Photo by Allan Amato/stylist: Xine Trevino

“I wrote this crime-noir movie with Cheech in mind as one of the characters,” says Hutson. “The idea for me was that the audience would see [Cheech] and associate him with marijuana and would think that this is the comedian from Cheech and Chong. But he’s older now and much smarter of a guy than that. No one really thinks of him as an intellectual when, in fact, he very much is.”

Hutson explains that when Cheech got back to him about possibly being in the film—a dream-come-true moment—the filmmaker flew from Canada to California to visit him at his house in Pacific Palisades. They shared stories about each other’s lives and spent a couple of hours bonding before Cheech took Hutson around his house to show him some of the art on the walls. One artist Cheech pointed out to Hutson was a young guy who works weekdays as a mechanic and spends the weekends painting. “The piece was incredible,” says Hutson. “Cheech then said to me, ‘I’m going to make this guy a star.’ And that was when it occurred to me that Cheech is really interested in helping out emerging artists, which is an extremely selfless and special thing. It shows the kind of heart he has.”

Cheech has a keen eye for aesthetics. A third-generation Mexican-American, he has been collecting Chicano art over the past 40 years. He’s traveled across the U.S. to scout for pieces, but he accumulates most of it in California, Texas and New Mexico. Due to the size, quality and growth of his collection, the East LA native has hosted tons of art exhibitions over the years. “I believe you can’t love or hate Chicano art unless you experience it,” Cheech says. “It’s a genuinely eye-opening and profound genre, especially for those who don’t know what it is or what it represents or how wide and diverse it is.”

While in Riverside last year for the second iteration of “Papel Chicano Dos: Works on Paper From the Collection of Cheech Marin,” which featured 65 artworks by 24 established and early career artists, the actor/collector was randomly approached by John Russo, the city manager, with a proposition. “He told me how perfect it would be for Riverside, which is 51 percent Chicano, and the Inland Empire at-large, which is 52 percent Chicano, to open a museum for my art,” says Cheech. “At first, I had no idea what he was talking about. I was like, ‘What? You want me to buy a museum? I don’t know if I can do that.’ And [Russo] said, ‘No! We want to give you a museum to house your collection.’ I couldn’t believe it, honestly, because I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with my collection. I was planning on divvying it up between different museums.”

Being a voice for the Latin community isn’t an easy task in 2018. It can even be dangerous, especially under the current presidential administration. Thus, opening a museum—a landmark, nonetheless—dedicated to Chicano culture is, in essence, a display of activism. According to Cheech, if art is in a museum, then it is accepted by the culture—even its most conservative parts. To have an opportunity to open a museum that houses his collection is an honor, Cheech explains, because it means there’s a level of recognition and a chance for the pieces to be memorialized. “This isn’t something only Chicanos can appreciate,” he says. “I’m not French, but I love Impressionism and Expressionism. The same concept applies. Chicano art is American art. My goal is to bring the term ‘Chicano’ to the forefront of the art world, and being gifted this museum is how I can make that happen. It’s truly a gift from the gods. It really made me believe that if your intentions are pure, good things will happen.”

Over the years, Cheech has received numerous awards for his work on behalf of Latinos, including the 2000 Creative Achievement Award from the Imagen Foundation and the 1999 ALMA Community Service Award from the National Council of La Raza and Kraft Foods. In 2007, he received an honorary doctorate of Fine Arts for his contributions to the creative arts from Otis College of Art & Design in Los Angeles, as well as the inaugural Legacy Award from the Smithsonian Latino Center. Cheech also serves on the boards of the Smithsonian Latino Center and the Hispanic Scholarship Fund. “It’s my culture, man,” Cheech says, laughing. “Seriously, it’s who I am. There’s a huge Latino population here, and they’re miffed because they’re not being serviced as well as everybody else. I want to combat that.”

His elegant taste extends further than his art. Cheech’s love of the finer things includes the cannabis flower, something he speaks about much as a sommelier speaks of wine. As with his pal Chong, Cheech has a flower line called Cheech’s Private Stash (yes, it’s a reference to his sweet handlebar mustache during his Up In Smoke days). You can find Cheech’s Private Stash in most cannabis-friendly cities and states, including California. Generally, cannabis brands native to one state don’t sell across state lines because of the varying laws and the fact cannabis is still federally illegal. Crossing state borders with cannabis—a schedule-one narcotic—is considered a felony, thus most canna-companies only operate within the state in which the business originated. But you can also find Cheech’s Private Stash in Colorado and Washington, among others.

So, how did the godfather of ganja get around this? The business model, according to Cheech, is similar to the way Kirkland (Costco’s brand) gets its wine. Instead of having a winery, Kirkland sources its grapes from world-renowned wine regions, such as Columbia Valley, Napa Valley’s Stags Leap District, Russian River Valley, Rhône and more. Similarly, Cheech sources his flower from the best growers in each state.

“We are a curatorial entity because there are so many strains coming into the market—like, literally every week,” Cheech says. “I mean, all the geneticists, breeders and master growers out there are trying to invent new strains for certain properties. Also, every state has different strains, and the people have differing flower preferences. So with all that in mind, we work with groups of the best geneticists and cultivators in each [legal] state and curate eighths and prerolls of the best bud.”

Photo by Allan Amato / Stylist: Xine Trevino / Design by Richie Beckman

The flower won’t always be the same strain, but it will always be good, according to Cheech, who says that’s his promise to the people. “No matter what city or state you’re in,” he contends, “when you see Cheech’s Private Stash, you can trust that the herb will always be quality—every single time.”

A proponent of legalization from the start, Cheech remains one of the most recognized advocates in the world. Although people argue his old movies reinforce an image the cannabis industry is working hard to break away from, there’s actually no better representative of a stigma-crushing, stereotype-defying cannabis user than Cheech. He’s brilliant, hilarious, motivated, and a cannabis user for its medicinal and therapeutic benefits.

“Legalization is the future for America,” he says. “It’s funny, though, because our country has a religious hold over cannabis use and legalization. People are like, ‘No, marijuana is bad because God didn’t mention it in the Bible.’ Except that he did mention it in the Bible. Have you ever heard of the burning bush? ‘And then God spoke to Moses out of the burning bush.’ Anyone who’s ever smoked weed and gotten really high understands what happened there.”


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