I've only known Tommy2Stix for a few hours, but he's already commandeering my car stereo. "Can I play my new track for you?" he asks, plucking the auxiliary cable from my phone and plugging it into his own before I can answer. It's a Tuesday afternoon in February, and we're driving through Hollywood on the way to the Miracle Mile headquarters of G-PEN, the vaporizer company that's underwritten part of the production costs of 2STIX, Tommy's new self-released LP that he is about to play for me: "Dab … Dab ... Dab … Dab..." A robotic voice is summoned from the iPhone, punctuating a booming bassline. "It's from a Frank Sinatra song," Tommy says. Now Sinatra's voice is praising a technology that would have turned Ol' Blue Eyes red: "Dabbin,'" the THC delivery method beloved by hardcore stoners, glamorized by G-PEN's design-savvy vape pen and borrowed for the title to Tommy's track.
Turning a THC extract to vapor with the type of butane torch pastry chefs use to crisp crème brûlée, dabbing offers a notoriously intense high to even seasoned pot-smokers. Moments into the track, Tommy, a G-PEN brand ambassador, is telling us about it in a nerdy white-boy cadence (even though Tommy is from Texas and of Mexican descent): "She just wanna dab it / Actin' like an addict / Dabbin' is a habit / On another planet / Now we goin' at it like a bunch of horny rabbits." At this point, Tommy is bouncing around in my passenger seat to the beat, live-rapping over his pre-recorded voice. "Turn right on Wilshire Boulevard," my GPS app interrupts him as we approach the G-PEN headquarters, silencing his track for a moment.
His subject matter—bitches and bud—isn't revolutionary, but Tommy's relationship with weed is different from the average rapper's. When Tommy, now 24, was a child, he was diagnosed with central core disease, an extremely rare neuromuscular disorder caused by a genetic defect that leaves muscles with a band of inactive fibers at their core. "I wasn't developing physically like a normal child," Tommy explains. "I never did my first steps. It took me a while to finally sit up by myself and start crawling." The non-degenerative form of muscular dystrophy runs in families and presents more mildly for Tommy's mother, who "can walk around but she can't necessarily run or jump."
Tommy spent most of his life navigating on "different-sized tricycles"—his legs were strong enough to pedal but not walk. At 16, a surgeon installed 21 metal pieces and two rods into his spine, permanently angling his torso slightly forward. These days—thanks largely to physical therapy and self-determination—he only needs crutches to get around. But going anywhere with Tommy still happens in slow-motion.
We pull up to G-PEN's headquarters and park in its lot, which it shares with Jack in the Box. I hand Tommy his crutches, and he arranges his legs out the door, leaning deeply into the crutches as he bears down on wobbly legs. "I'm not able to support my own weight by myself," Tommy explains later. Standing up is the most belabored part of Tommy's movement, involving an exhausting and painful-looking squirm of his abdomen. After seconds of shaking, he's got it, and we're ambling through the lot at about half my usual pace. (I've never seen the benefits of a well-marked crosswalk as much as when we crossed a busy L.A. street together, drivers white-knuckling with impatience to get passed us.)
"During college, I started being like, fuck it, I'm going to walk where I want to go," Tommy tells me. "Whenever I got tired I'd medicate a little bit, and I'd be good to go." By "medicate," he means smoke weed, and he credits the drug with transforming his life in the past several years, helping him boost his energy, manage his pain and improve his mental health. "Pot's helped me with my own depression of being born with a disease that's so incredibly rare that there's only one other family that's been discovered to have it beside my own."
His self-medicating was emboldened when he went home to Texas after his freshman year of college and reunited with his physical therapists, who were shocked that he had maintained his fitness and agility without their help. "They were like, 'Tommy, you're just as fast!' And I was like, 'I'm having my own version of spinach.'"
Shortly thereafter, Tommy decided to reveal to his parents exactly what kind of spinach it was. "I smoked a joint in front of my mom, and I was able to stay standing without my crutches. Understandably, she freaked out a bit."
Stories like Tommy's are important for the medical arm of the legalization movement (particularly in states like Texas that don't recognize medical marijuana). Its legitimacy depends on convincing the public that the plant has medical benefits and that keeping this medicine from those who need it is inhumane and potentially discriminatory. It also involves a rebranding effort to distance the movement from its associations with stoner culture. It's about "healing" not "partying"; hence the verb "medicate" instead of "getting stoned." In Los Angeles, where illegal, recreationally oriented dispensaries have inspired police crackdowns on the whole industry, there's a bitter feud between some old-school medical activists and more entrepreneurial shops, which have been known to market toward a male stoner demographic with events such as "Bikini Fridays" or lounge-like atmospheres.
That's what makes Tommy an unusual advocate; born into the medical camp, he's culturally a stoner. (He's also an aspiring law-student and recently worked an assistant job at the Texas capital, where he discretely puffed his G-PEN for energy boosts during cigarette breaks.) His disability might be far more apparent than almost anybody shopping at the dispensary, but that doesn't mean he'd hate on "Bikini Friday." "I don't want to ever say 'no' to anything," Tommy says, justifying his #Yolo worldview. "I've been given such a rare disease that I've already had a lot of opportunities shut out for me."
More than anything, Tommy is eager to fit in; he's young, severely disabled and ready to turn up. And since meeting Action Bronson—the weed-loving, G-PEN sponsored rapper—at a Bronson concert in December 2012, life is just starting to get good. "I was in the front row, and I was waving a crutch in the air," Tommy recalls. Bronson pulled the crutch out of Tommy's hands and started rapping with it. Then, he lifted Tommy on stage, too. "I instinctively pulled out two Js. I handed him one, and we started smoking," Tommy says. "When he saw my head bobbing to the beat, he passed me the mic, and I just spat four bars out of my ass."
Tommy had never rapped before, but he was inspired to start writing his own stuff. By the time last year's SXSW rolled around, Tommy was prepared. He showed up at Bronson's showcase, and when Bronson saw Tommy in the crowd again, "he ran over, picked me up and he started rapping with me on his shoulders." (The performance was captured by an NPR photographer and can be seen YouTube.)
Bronson then invited Tommy to join him at the Viceland showcase later in the week, where Tommy bumped into G-PEN CEO Chris Folkerts while smoking one of Folkerts' signature products. "Tommy was literally showing people how to use the Action Bronson pen," Folkerts says. When Folkerts asked Tommy how he liked the pen, Tommy began gushing and Folkerts revealed he had invented it. "We sat there, had a beer and smoked. He was like, 'Yo, have you had any real BBQ since you've been in Texas?'" Folkerts says.
They hopped in the car and headed for the Salt Lick, a famous barbeque spot outside of Austin. "I ended up chilling with him the rest of the night," Tommy says. "We just dabbed out and ate monstrous amounts of BBQ." Not long after, Tommy put out his first video for his song "Cripple Flow" and sent the link to Folkerts. Folkerts reciprocated with a plane ticket and an invitation to perform at G-PEN's 420 party at Coachella.
When we go inside the G-PEN headquarters, Tommy is treated like a returning hero. "How was the Cannabis Cup?" asks one of the company's many young employees, greeting Tommy with a fist bump. Other staff is busy preparing shipments of G-PEN merchandise. The glass-walled conference rooms that ring the entry are full of serious-looking meetings. There's a vibrancy here rarely felt in L.A., a city whose economy lacks the hyperactive start-up scenes of San Francisco or New York and whose chief industry (i.e., the movie business) has contracted.
G-PEN has recently taken over a 6,000-square-foot art deco bank on Wilshire Boulevard, the office's chic aesthetics reflecting the company's aspirational and design-savvy brand. (Vape pens start at $80 while more elaborate devices—like a vaporizer that folds into a discrete, metal flask—cost about $100.) We are ushered into Folkerts' office, a dark, stoner lair in the old bank vault on the ground floor. It's full of weed paraphernalia and expensive art by brand-name artists like Bert Rodriguez (whose work was shown in the 2008 Venice Biennale) and Wes Lang (who designed the merchandise for Kanye's Yeezus tour).
"That neon piece has been in five different museums and is worth more than you would even think," Folkerts says, pointing to Rodriguez's minimalist light sculpture, haphazardly positioned amidst a shelf full of colorful custom bongs. On another shelf above his desk sits Lang's bronze bust of Abraham Lincoln. "In the pipe there's actually a nug that he casted."
With wavy hair, the right amount of scruff and an all-black outfit, Folkerts looks less like a head-shop kingpin and more like any other guy working in the creative economy. (He is a veteran of the music industry.) His product's futuristic design brings glamour and discretion to getting stoned, reflecting the company's ambitions to move its appeal beyond weed's low-end ghetto. Partnerships with Snoop Dogg, Action Bronson and, increasingly, lifestyle brands aid their mission.
"We're starting to break in with the fashion world," Folkerts tells me, scraping sticky THC extract from an envelope on his desk into the bowl of a water pipe, which he occasionally blasts with a butane torch to take a hit. At the time of my visit, Folkerts was gearing up for the Agenda Tradeshow in Las Vegas, which features skate brands like HUF and DGK. "We've got a mini-golf course that we've curated inside the fashion show. We're doing eight different capsules with different brands. It's a special thing for us to be accepted in a fashion trade show and be the main attraction."
As I talk to Chris, Tommy sits on a chair nearby, his legs barely touching the ground. He has the butane torch and bursts into a coughing fit after taking a generous dab. ("I always cough," he offers in his defense.) If G-PEN represents the future of the marijuana industry—high-end, heavily branded and (potentially) billions of dollars in revenue—Tommy is a reminder of its past—weed primarily in the service of medical conditions (real or otherwise). Today, the relationship between these two camps isn't always easy: Many medical marijuana activists worry about the direction the weed industry will take when the big money inevitably jumps in. For instance, last week theNew York Times reported how Washington's new regulations for recreational marijuana will end up shutting down many older medical marijuana dispensaries. And in California, influential medical marijuana activists helped prevent a recreational bill from passing in 2010—a battle that could be played out again as activists look to put the issue back on the ballot in 2016.
Folkerts is aware of that tension—which is really about who will own the future of the marijuana industry—and is quick to point out that his relationship with Tommy isn't a strategic attempt to make G-PEN seem more medically inclined than it is. "He supports the product; we support Tommy," Folkerts explains. "That's all there is to it." But at the same time, he admits, "It's great that people can see that someone who has a severe disability is able to use the G-PEN as a functional thing. It's not just a novelty."
Tommy's video for "Cripple Flow" exemplifies the way their partnership complicates the typical divide between recreational and medical use. As Tommy drives around rapping and "medicating" with a joint, he's joined by a masked gunman. He mimics other hip-hop video tropes as well: He slow rides a bike, brandishes his crutches like knives and gets rubbed on by some random video girl. "I'm a boss smoking that Spanish Moss / I'm realer than Rick Ross / I'm dipping my slick dick into barbeque sauce / Watching as Kate Moss is slowly licking it off," Tommy raps on "Cripple Flow." But again, it's a mixed message—i.e., those lyrics come moments after declaring, "Muscular dystrophy ain't shit to me" at the top of the track.
His "started-from-the-bottom" narrative is a perfect fit within a hip-hop story arc. (This time, however, the disadvantages being overcome are physical, not economic.) And his G-PEN-assisted rise to the spotlight is a testament to how the medical-marijuana movement has changed the way we think about people with disabilities—just as much as people with disabilities have changed the way we think about weed. Tommy's decision to smoke is about feeling better and fitting in, pursuing the same desires other young people want, including drugs, sex, respect and fame.
"I help remove the stigma of disability and make it personable and something that people aren't scared of because it's different," Tommy says. "The same goes for pot. It's here for a reason, and we shouldn't limit what people think about those who have to medicate with it. I smoke, and I'm trying to go to law school and do my own music. I don't let anything hold me back."
The High Road is a bi-weekly exploration of America's rapidly changing relationship with weed.
Zak Stone is a Playboy contributing editor based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared on Next City, Fast Company and NY Mag's The Cut. Follow him on Twitter @_zs.
Photo by Jordan Haro