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The Washington Post

Rico Valderrama, aka DC pot pioneer Telephone Homie, has died at 45


The second that Rico Valderrama realized he would grow to be a trailblazer within the marijuana business — which on the time was but to be legalized in D.C. — he threw up.

It was 2012. Valderrama, higher identified within the hashish business as “Phone Homie,” was visiting Amsterdam after escaping homelessness by becoming a member of the Marine Corps, in response to Alex Beraud, his enterprise supervisor. Improbably, Valderrama discovered himself onstage with Ghostface Killah of the Wu-Tang Clan, who’d recruited viewers members at a live performance to rap verses of considered one of Wu-Tang’s hits.

Taking his activate the mic, Valderrama noticed the longer term: As marijuana, which he’d used and bought illegally for many years, was decriminalized throughout the nation, he might come out of the shadows and produce this drug to individuals who wanted it. The epiphany was so intense that Valderrama, to Ghostface’s amusement, vomited.

Underneath the identify Telephone Homie, Valderrama constructed a well-liked D.C. hashish model and off-the-wall web radio present. Nevertheless, his profession was lower quick when he died Oct. 30 at 45 after a two-year battle with coronavirus problems.

“Rico — he was just like the outlaw’s American Dream,” Beraud stated. “Actually from nothing to one thing.”

Accounts of Valderrama’s adolescence differ, as do opinions of how his incessant hashish use contributed to his demise.

Beraud stated Valderrama was raised in Lengthy Island by a single mom in a “very risky family.” When he was about 14, he left house to stay on the road for 3 years.

“His mother couldn’t management him, or possibly he was including extra dysfunction to the home. So he left,” Beraud stated.

Tony Valderrama, Rico’s youthful brother, knew him as “Rocketship Rico” — a boy with boundless power for music, artwork, cooking and medicines, determined for a father determine. He would throw himself utterly into no matter subculture he came across, whether or not it was skateboarding or throwing raves.

And wherever Rico went, he discovered followers.

“One factor I feel Rico excels at … is influencing individuals,” Tony Valderrama stated. “Anybody inside a sure circumference would simply get sucked in.”

Homeless in Nineteen Nineties New York, Valderrama ended up on arduous medicine, taking cocaine and tablets, Beraud stated. Realizing road life was unsustainable, he escaped by becoming a member of the Marines in 2001, ultimately serving in Japan as a paralegal for the decide advocate normal, or JAG Corps.

“He determined he wanted the aim that the army gave him,” Sylwia Valderrama, Valderrama’s spouse and mom of his two youngsters, stated. “He actually liked the army. He at all times stated he regrets not going into fight. He wished that.”

After 4 years of service, nonetheless, Valderrama left the Marines in 2005. In accordance with Beraud, he ended up the place he started: homeless and battling habit. As veterans have long said, marijuana helped quell his cravings for extra harmful substances.

So, like numerous others in marijuana’s black market days, Valderrama bought and used hashish. However he wished to succeed as an entrepreneur in a legalized business — so he pushed for legalization, towards the mainstream and into the highlight.

He launched his Telephone Homie model. With a reputation born of an inside joke — Valderrama stated he smoked blunts so massive that they appeared like “E.T.’s fingers,” in response to Beraud — Telephone Homie was quickly providing not simply hashish and hashish concentrates, however paraphernalia, clothes, music manufacturing and recommendation to customers and residential growers.

As marijuana grew to become extra extensively accepted as a reliable medication, Valderrama grew to become a hashish influencer with an Instagram following of almost 50,000. With marijuana gross sales nonetheless in a grey zone in D.C. years after legalization — and leisure use allowed final 12 months in Virginia and subsequent 12 months in Maryland — he traveled the nation to hashish conventions, judging strains of marijuana for Excessive Instances journal’s “Hashish Cups.”

Valderrama additionally carved out a distinct segment in D.C.’s media panorama far faraway from Sunday political gabfests: “The Slab Hour,” an web radio present broadcast from a Georgia Avenue studio. Named for “slabs” of hashish focus favored by some customers, the present’s a whole bunch of episodes featured myriad variations of free-form reefer insanity.

On any given episode, a heavy metallic band would possibly play. Beraud would possibly DJ. Valderrama would possibly take calls — if he hadn’t misplaced his telephone. (In one episode the place his telephone went lacking, he suggested: “Attempt to give it a name and depart a voice mail.”) A microphone would possibly emit excruciating suggestions. And, inevitably, hashish can be consumed in lots of varieties.

“The Slab Hour” didn’t purpose to shock or push boundaries, Valderrama stated. The present wished the alternative.

“We take it upon ourselves to … take away that stigma of marijuana, present you the tradition, take massive slabs … and get the group on the market entrance and heart,” he stated within the present’s introduction.

Jason Lamboy, the founding father of hashish firm District Dabbers and an occasional visitor host of “The Slab Hour,” stated Valderrama confirmed he might ship necessary cannabis-related information whereas “excessive out of his thoughts.”

“He was erasing the stigma that the hashish consumer is simply this lazy stoner that sits house all day and eats chilly pizza,” Lamboy stated.

But the stigma stays. Leisure marijuana gross sales stay unlawful within the District, and companies that “present” small quantities to clients, usually with the acquisition of another product, have come under scrutiny.

To ‘gift’ marijuana, D.C. companies must sell something. This one sells motivational speeches.

Adam Eidinger, sponsor of the D.C. poll initiative that legalized marijuana in 2014, stated Valderrama was deeply concerned within the push to move the measure. At their first assembly, Eidinger stated, Valderrama greeted him with a $420 money donation. (Conscious of marketing campaign finance improprieties, Eidinger pressured him to put in writing a verify.) Valderrama was additionally a well-recognized face at protests, smoking marijuana on federal land — the place it stays unlawful — and holding up an enormous inflatable fake joint in entrance of the White Home.

“The Slab Hour,” in the meantime, grew to become a middle of the D.C. hashish scene, in response to Eidinger. Throughout a 2016 appearance on the show, Valderrama interviewed him amid dozens of individuals smoking hashish contained in the studio — overwhelming even to a veteran consumer.

After legalization, Valderrama, who had bought medicine illegally, navigated D.C.’s grey market, providing hashish “presents” with different branded Phone Homie merchandise like sweatshirts and stickers.

“He confirmed all people in D.C. to not be afraid anymore,” Eidinger stated. “Hashish home-based companies level to Telephone Homie because the man who paved the best way.”

Then in 2021, Valderrama caught covid-19 and by no means actually recovered, Sylwia Valderrama stated. He ended up in a medically induced coma for greater than two months. His liver additionally started to fail, and he acquired a transplant earlier this 12 months.

In a February social media post, a visibly weakened Valderrama, coughing and struggling to breathe, stated he’d misplaced greater than 80 kilos. He stated his hashish use was not a think about his sickness, and he criticized a medical system that prevented him from consuming the drug whereas awaiting a spot on the liver transplant checklist.

Even close to the top, individuals have been judging him for utilizing marijuana. For him, it was medication he wanted.

“There’s a little bit of prejudice happening,” he stated. “They don’t need to see me on another medicine aside from what they prescribe to me.”

Tony Valderrama disagreed. He believes Rico’s fixed smoking of hashish concentrates prevented his physique from defeating the coronavirus. To argue in any other case, Tony stated, was to defy widespread sense.

His brother Rico had been defeated by the drug he championed.

“It mastered him,” Tony stated. “It mastered everybody round him. … They know him as Telephone Homie, however I do know him as my brother Rico. I do know what a caring, form and exquisite soul he was.”

Rico Valderrama labored for years to overtly use his drug of alternative and educate others about it.

“That was his mission,” Sylwia Valderrama stated. “To normalize it … He made this together with his arduous work. It was his dream to consider the plant. And he did it.”

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