It’s kind of ironic that Tommy Chong, the smokiest half of Cheech and Chong, is so closely associated with rolling papers. Sure the character he played on stage and in the movies was endlessly smoking fatties, and the comedy duo’s second album, “Big Bambu,” 1972, opened up like a booklet of Bambu rolling papers, with a Cheech and Chong-watermarked sheet inside. Then, in 1978, the pair was rolled into a joint for the poster advertising their film debut, “Up In Smoke.”
“I’m not really a paper guy,” says Chong over the phone, a few days before his 75th birthday. “I’m a pipe guy. I’ve always been a pipe guy, still to this day.”
“One of the things I like about Alcoy is its sense of history.”
Which is not to say Chong lacks, shall we say, experience with rolling papers. “We were on vacation in the mid-1980s in Ocho Rios, Jamaica. I had, um, arranged to buy some pot. The guy asked me ‘how much?’ and I said, ‘Well, give me $10 worth, I guess.’ And he brought me an armful of weed. Literally. An armful. So I sat in my vacation rental and cleaned it. It took me a whole day. I made it fine and beautiful, took all the twigs and seeds out of it, and then I proceeded to get a couple of books of papers, laid ’em out, and rolled. It was probably about an inch and a half in diameter and I would say eight inches long, maybe longer. It was perfect, a perfectly rolled joint. It lasted the whole time I was there.”
Equally ironic is the fact that rolling papers are so closely associated with marijuana. In fact, according to a Canadian study, the average tobacco smoker who rolls his own cigarettes consumes 12-and-a-half sheets of rolling paper a day, whereas the average marijuana smoker consumes less than half a sheet. The reason for the disparity is obvious when you think about it for a second or two—lots of people smoke a dozen cigarettes a day, but how many people do you know who smoke that many joints in a 24-hour period? Even Chong doesn’t do that.
“I smoke just a tiny little bit,” he says, “a tiny little pellet. I learned that from an old jazz singer named Jon Hendricks of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. Before he’d go on stage he’d take these little tiny hash crumbs, and he’d put them in a filter cigarette and light it up. It’s really one toke. And then he’d go on stage and sing like crazy. I learned my habits from the masters.”
In fact, for Chong, rolling papers were always linked to tobacco. “I grew up in rural Calgary in Alberta, Canada,” he says. “Tailor-made cigarettes, as they were called, were a rarity. Back in the day, you bought a can of tobacco, a pack of rolling papers, and rolled your own. The trick was to roll a cigarette one-handed, because you had your other hand on the wheel or holding the reins of your horse. I had a friend who could do it. I tried, but wasn’t that great.”
Josh Kesselman isn’t great at it either, although as the founder of RAW Rolling Papers, you’d think he might be. Kesselman can roll a cigarette one-handed, he says, “If you don’t mind a big mess. I learned how to do it from an old cowboy after I broke my thumb 11 years ago.”
While Chong may have had his association with rolling papers imposed on him for marketing reasons, Kesselman sought it out, lured to the mysteries of rolling papers at an early age by his father, who would entertain his children at the dinner table with magic tricks, one of which was to light a sheet of Marfil Arroz rolling papers on fire and toss it in the air, causing it to vanish before young Josh’s wide, impressionable eyes. (Because rice paper generates very little ash when set on fire, it appears to disappear, which is also why it’s popular with smokers.)
“I wouldn’t have cared less about rolling papers had I not been enthralled as a kid watching that thing burn up in front of me,” he says. “I think so much of what we do in life is based on things that happened to us as children. Sometimes you don’t even realize it, but in my case, I did.”
As an adult, Kesselman became a student of rolling papers, from their manufacture to their history, which led him to Alcoy, Spain, where, coincidentally, Cheech and Chong’s Bambu rolling papers were first manufactured, where Kesselman’s father’s Marfil Arroz papers were produced, and where RAW, Elements, and other Kesselman-designed rolling papers are made today.
According to Kesselman, papermaking in Europe began in Alcoy in 1154, brought to Spain by the Moors, who learned the practice from the Chinese. “The original paper was mostly made out of hemp,” he says, “but it was made out of anything with fiber. A lot of times they would recycle linens and rags, clothing-type stuff, anything that had fiber in it.” Paper had been used for currency in China beginning around the 7th century; not surprisingly, that was one of its first uses in Europe, too.
After tobacco was introduced to Spain from the New World in the 1500s, a tobacco trade developed in Europe in the 1600s. The aristocrats smoked Tommy Chong-size cigars, rolled in palm and tobacco leaves. When they were done smoking these enormous stogies, they would toss the butts on the ground, where peasants would pick them up, take them apart, and reroll what was left in small scraps of newspaper.
“There was probably green smoke and sparks coming off of them,” Kesselman says of these early rolling papers. “It wouldn’t have been like they were smoking a new New York Times. They were smoking paper that had lead and cadmium and God only knows what in that ink, which would have been running all over their hands.”
By the time the custom of smoking made its way to Alcoy, Kesselman says, the papermakers there recognized the need for a special paper made just for smoking tobacco, so they produced a clean-burning, white, rolling paper, which they advertised by promoting its hygienic properties.
The first rolling papers were produced as large sheets that users would fold and tear, which is how the standard, 1 1/4 size, sometimes called Spanish size, developed. Eventually a Dominican monk from nearby Xàtiva realized that the papers would be easier to use if they were cut to size and protected by a little booklet, and by 1703, a company in Alcoy, Pay-Pay, was exporting rolling papers in booklets outside of Spain.
Kesselman first started doing business in Alcoy in 1995, setting up shop in the town’s second paper mill, which made its first rolling papers in 1764. “We could have purchased a paper machine, which is made in Spain, and brought it over here and processed paper,” he says, “but why would you want to? Everything’s there, all the stuff you need. We’d have been importing everything from Europe anyway. It didn’t make sense. The acacia gum [also known as gum arabic] comes from Ethiopia and Sudan, and all the fibers [hemp, flax, rice] come from India overland. Alcoy’s kind of centrally located for all of that.”
For Kesselman, though, the reason to be in Alcoy, which he visits about four times a year, is about more than mere logistical convenience. “One of the things I like about Alcoy is its sense of history. There, you can sit on a mountainside where you can pick olives or almonds off trees planted by the Moors. There’s just this sense of connectivity that feels genuine, real.” Still, like the Moors, the rolling-paper industry has moved on. “Nobody’s left in Alcoy except us,” Kesselman says.
Being the only rolling-paper producer in town is not without its advantages. “From time to time we outgrow our machines,” he says, “and it’s like, okay, we’re making enough paper, and we’re folding the paper, but we don’t have the machine to get it into booklets. It’s going to take six months to build that new machine, so what are we going to do in the meantime? Well, we go back to the old ways. We set up an old factory room the way it was done back in the early-to-mid 1900s, and fill it with a bunch of Spanish ladies, some guys but mostly ladies, who have these little wooden tools that hold the pack open so you can slip the paper in and kind of flip it over. Some of the ladies laugh about it because they say ‘my grandmother did this.’ Again, it’s that sense of connection. After the machine gets built, we don’t need the room full of Spanish ladies any more, until six months or a year later when we outgrow another machine and we gotta bring everybody back.”
“The trick was to roll a cigarette one-handed.”
Kesselman is equally old-school in his approach to product development, relying on observation and experimentation to get things right with just a handful of ingredients—hemp, flax, and rice. “It’s basically just taking different forms of cellulose and fiber and blending them in a way that makes the paper smoke right,” he says. “See, the thing that’s different about cigarette paper compared to any other form of paper is that cigarette paper is designed to release energy. The paper you write on, the paper you print on, the paper you use for toilet paper, anything like that, none of it releases energy. But with rolling paper, you light it, it burns, and it has to release energy in a certain way that’s going to transfer the energy to the material you’re smoking. It’s something you actually have to tinker with to get right.”
One particularly arcane corner of the rolling-paper-maker’s art is the watermark. “Watermarks were originally done just show off,” says Kesselman, “just to make the paper look more beautiful. And when the sheet was out of the booklet, you would know where it came from. Originally it was just for that.”
But Kesselman noticed that the watermarks on his rolling papers were affecting the way in which the paper burned. “I’m always trying to improve the process,” he says, “it’s what I like to do. And this is going to sound strange, but when I’m sitting there smoking, I look at the burning embers, I watch them, I try to see what they are doing and what they are trying to tell me. I really try to connect with it. And I noticed that the embers were following the watermark in a certain way, that the watermark was affecting the burn, making it canoe or run. So I started experimenting. At first I tried to approach the way a scientist would. ‘Okay, so we need to make a cube pattern and control the flame, [Arnold Schwarzenegger voice] we must control the flame!’ You know, thinking of it as something that is not alive. So I tried a cube pattern, and that made it run even more.”
Rather than trying to control the flame, Kesselman realized that it might be better to try to guide it, similar to dancing with a partner. “You can gently lead your partner to the left or right, but you have to kind of let her do her own thing,” he says. “So I switched the watermark from a cube pattern to more of a crisscross. I also added hard stops every centimeter or so. Doing that allowed the ember to dance the way it wanted to dance, to give it the freedom to go left, go right, but in the end, always kind of end up back at center.”
“I’m not really a paper guy,” says Chong. “I’m a pipe guy.”
Not even the paper’s gum was sparred Kesselman’s scrutiny. “We use a blend of acacia gum and a little hemp protein in order to make it burn evenly.” But what Kesselman won’t do is add compounds to his paper designed to make them “fire safe,” which is the norm for pre-rolled cigarettes sold in the United States. “There’s Franken-tobacco, which is something I really do not believe in, and now there’s Franken-papers, or FSC, which add extra chemicals to the paper in order to make it go out. In my opinion, it’s a fraud and a scam. They are making these cigarettes in the guise of saving people from burning themselves up in their beds by falling asleep smoking. But the only reason this is being done is because the largest cigarette-paper supplier in the world has a patent on fire-safe cigarette paper, and they lobbied to get these laws passed. So it’s not actually for our benefit as smokers, it tastes worse, and it’s more toxic for us in my opinion, based on the things I’ve read. Yet it does make this very large paper company a lot of money.”
With hundreds of product lines and brands, Kesselman’s company is not exactly a non-profit. He, too, is in business, and makes no bones about it, but more than most enterprises, his business involves giving consumers control of their habits (and in the case of tobacco, their addictions), going so far as to offer tobacco seeds to his rolling-paper customers.
“I’m a tobacco guy,” he says, inadvertently echoing Chong’s characterization of himself as a “pipe guy.” “I sell tobacco seeds for people to grow their own because by doing that, you get true tobacco, you get freedom, you don’t pay the government these ridiculous taxes. Marlboro doesn’t get your money, the government doesn’t get your money, you keep it and you know exactly what went into your cigarette.”
The tobacco Kesselman grows is also a key element in his organic vegetable garden. “Tobacco is nature’s pesticide,” he says. “I line my garden with tobacco plants, two rows thick, especially around my zucchinis and tomatoes and things like that. It produces these beautiful white flowers, and it kills any bug that bites it. That’s what nicotine does, it’s a toxin.”
A toxin, which, of course, he smokes. “At the end of the season I yank it and garage-cure it, which means it hangs for about six months until the ammonia all comes out of it. And when I’m out of my own tobacco that I grew, I will not smoke tobacco again until I have grown more, just to make sure that I don’t become completely addicted to it, you know?
“There are lots of things that are incredibly bad for us,” he continues. “I am a true libertarian. So for me, if somebody wants to smoke, then I think it’s their damn right to smoke. As long as they understand that it’s bad for them, then they should have the right to do that. There’s no question on that. But there is pleasure in smoking or else people would not do it. As humans, we need to have the freedom to choose whatever the hell we want to do, as long as it’s not hurting other people.”
Chong agrees, except his example is marijuana, which he smokes to treat his prostate cancer. “I’ve treated it with hash oil,” he says, “but that’s just part of it. It’s mostly diet, supplements, and a vegan diet, mostly vegetarian. Everything I’m doing seems to be working. I’m doing good, man. I’m doing really good.”
Like Kesselman and his distrust of the motives behind “fire-safe” cigarettes, Chong sees special interests, who still haven’t figured out how to cash in on marijuana, as the cause for the plant’s continued illegality. “Big money made it illegal, big money and big lies. Marijuana is a plant and a medicine. It should not be subject to tax and it should not be subject to patents, which is what the big companies are looking for. They’re looking for a way to patent a medicine so that they can have the monopoly on it. Well, you can’t patent a plant like that, especially weed, you know? You can patent a process, but in weed there is no process. You grow it, you harvest it, you smoke it. That’s it.”
Even if marijuana was made legal tomorrow nationwide, tobacco would still be the main combustible stuffed inside sheets of rolling papers. That’s because the potency of the marijuana that’s sold in legal dispensaries and on the streets today is many times greater than the punch packed by the armful of weed Chong rolled into an enormous joint in Jamaica. Simply put, these days, a joint is just too much. “That’s the whole answer to the argument that pot’s much stronger now than it was back in the day,” Chong the pipe guy adds: “Don’t smoke as much.”
A Slideshow of Rolling-Paper Art
Cheech and Chong's 1972 album opened like a rolling-paper booklet and even featured a rolling-paper sheet watermarked with a picture of the duo on it.