Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Now I can retire: World-renowned pathologist Cyril Wecht just asked me what a bong is.
Wecht appeared at an afternoon press conference alongside Tommy Chong, the stoner-cinema film star who -- like Wecht -- was targeted by former US Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan. As first reported here, the two are slated to headline a Democratic Party fundraiser tonight.
Jim Burn, who chairs the party's county committee, told a clutch of reporters that the two men had been chosen for the event "because we're Democrats" -- people who "celebrate the exchange of ideas. We are not the party of 'shut up or I'll sue'" -- an obvious reference to Mary Beth Buchanan's ill-considered (sorry, Bram) impropmptu appearance on the Marty Griffin show.
Buchanan is running for Congress in District 4, but she clearly doesn't have Chong's endorsement. Buchanan prosecuted Chong for a family business that sold bongs over the internet. Chong pled guilty -- he claimed he did so to spare his son, who ran the operation -- and served nine months in prison. While he thanked Buchanan for "jump-starting my career again" by turning him into a cause celebre, he also referred to Buchanan as the "lead publicity-seeker in this case."
Because of Buchanan, he said, "I lost millions of dollars ... nine months of my freedom, and my family suffered."
Prior to his sentencing, Chong pledged to do community service, and to try dissuading kids from using drugs. Today, though, he shared his belief that "marijuana [and] hemp really will save the planet." As for his previous willingess to do youth outreach, Chong frankly admitted "I was trying everything I could to stay out of jail."
But while there's a different administration in power now, Chong's family is out of the bong business for good. "I don't want to do anything that would put me in jail," Chong said. He did, however, express an interest in selling a barbeque called "Still Smokin'" -- one that would be "shaped like a joint."
Apparently in good spirits and good health, Chong seemed as interested in discussing the restorative power of salsa dancing as anything else today. (American culture, too, may have moved on from the hallucinogenic haze of the Cheech & Chong glory years: As Democratic Party staffers handed around flyers about tonight's event, one recipient blurted out, "Who's Tommy Chong?")
Together, Wecht and Chong riffed on the sorry state of US drug law. Wecht discussed the pharmacological properties of cannabis -- "it's categorized as a mild hallucinogen" he said, but after having done 17,000 autopsies, he'd never come across "acute cannabis toxicity" as a cause of death. Yet as Chong discoursed on the etymology of "bong" -- it's a Thai word -- Wecht leaned over and whispered to me: "What's a bong? Is it the same as a waterpipe?"
Just as well, then, that Chong has reunited with his old comedy partner, Cheech Marin. Not only did Chong say he "wouldn't be comfortable working with a coroner," but Wecht would apparently have a hard time getting in character.
Wecht also took the occasion to criticize the ability of law enforcement to police its own. Locally, "We've had some cases involving police, and you've seen the way their cases were handled," he said. "Stand back and ask yourself, 'If that [had been] Mr. X or Mr. Y, would the result be the same?'"
After the conference broke up, I asked Wecht about whether he had much sympathy for state Sen. Jane Orie and her family. The Ories have been accused of using state resources for political work by Allegheny County DA Steve Zappala -- an old nemisis of Wecht's.
"I don't know what's involved, or what they may have done," Wecht said. But he said he believed that "This is all related to the fact that Ories have been pounding the Pennsylvania Casino Association" -- a quasi-lobbying entity which retains Zappala's father, a former Supreme Court justice, and sister.
The Ories have made similar allegations -- though Jim Burn, who presided over today's press conference, has called them "baseless."
In any case, Wecht contended, every politician mixes political work with their government job: "My God, when I was county commissioner, [fellow commissioner] Tom Foerster's whole campaign was run out of his office."