How Did Uncle Ike Become Dr. Evil?
The notorious cannabis entrepreneur is a magnet for protests and anti-Semitism.
First things first, the mailbox.
I love getting mail. Please send me mail.
Response to last week’s foray into human composting was positive (please heart articles if you like them, it makes me feel good, and it’s anonymous). I’d like to share this email, with permission, from Friend of The Cholent Mindy Stern:
I have been reading about the human composting issue with interest.
When the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip were evacuated in 2005, the cemetery had to be moved too. My mother-in-law, Leah, and about twenty other Jews who had been interred there, had to be re-buried in Israel proper. Nine years had passed since Leah's death, so a lot of decomposition had occurred. A tremendous effort was made to recover every fragment that remained of her body before removing Leah in multiple bags, which were then buried in a new grave. Seeing those bags, maybe a dozen of them, was gruesome, one of the most difficult things I’ve ever experienced. Never before had I seen the evidence of what actually happens to an intact physical body after death and return to the earth. And, the reburial occurred just weeks after the displacement of the Gush Katif community, when my family were all in shock about losing their homes, identities, and community, so that added to the trauma.
When I read about human composting, I think about Leah, and how slow the process was, compared to the modern technique of Natural Organic Reduction. But the end result is the same, so why are people so horrified by this new technology?
Thank you for opening the discussion about this sensitive issue. I will be very interested to see where it leads.
So powerful. Thanks for sharing, Mindy.
Now for something completely different.
Ian Eisenberg burst onto the scene when he opened one of the state’s first cannabis dispensaries, Uncle Ike’s, in the Central District. His big shiny building on the corner of 23rd and Union took the place of a string of businesses that had experienced shootings and had gone out of business. The TLDR version, if you haven’t followed, is that Eisenberg’s existence on that historically troubled corner and close to an African American church is gentrifying the historically Black neighborhood and was undermining the church, which was trying to keep kids away from drugs — the irony being that a legal pot shop was now in the place where many Black individuals had been busted for the very same thing, pre-legalization. The church sued Eisenberg for establishing the shop too close to a church, but the law was not on its side, and it lost. Meanwhile, the Central District is changing; its Black population is dwindling, and condos and prices are going up. This, in the crucible of Seattle antiracism culture and particularly in District 3, represented by Socialist Alternative Kshama Sawant, is explosive.
Then there’s Eisenberg himself, a shark of a businessman who is no stranger to controversy. His disputes with nearby businesses are not pretty. They’re also not illegal, which is why Eisenberg has become the villain of the CD and Capitol Hill. Protestors accuse him of gentrification, racism, poor work conditions, criminal activities, even posing as Black to gain the trust of the community. (On videos shared with me, a protestor claims that “Uncle Ike” is a Black name.) His shops suffer vandalism and graffiti. But the worst of it is the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, which surprised the guy who was raised without much relationship to Judaism.
“I never should have given a face to my business.”
Ian Eisenberg on near-constant vandalism, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, misunderstandings, and regrets.
The Cholent: I’ve been wanting to catch up. The past year and the past few months have been eventful. Then I remembered that next week is 4/20 so I thought, I better get on this. So how have things been?
Ian Eisenberg: The past year has been awful, between the pandemic and protests. And the protest stuff still goes on. Last night we got a whole bunch of vandalism at the Central District site. Every week there’s something. We have a van that we park out front. Last night they spray painted “trash ass weed, racist fucks, fuck you Uncle Ike’s.”
Ah, that’s nice. Have you been successful in getting any of this cited or prosecuted or — any retribution here?
The police aren’t really doing anything unless it’s a priority one call right now. Priority two and threes aren’t even getting responded to; there’s just so few police in Seattle right now.
I’ve been seeing a lot of articles where you come up as almost as a kind of villain. But there’s very little comment like from you. And just the fact that you had vandalism last night — do you see any way of changing this?
I have this conversation a lot. I’ve had this conversation with PR people, and my opinion really is, no. Because it’s reached the QAnon level of craziness. The last protests have really focused on the fact that Uncle Ike’s is a front for an underground child sex trafficking ring.
Who actually would still say this?
The every morning march people, when they were still marching. I’m happy to send you a video of them doing it. It’s the child sex trafficking ring, that’s how I made my money. I got my pot licenses, not through normal means, but because I know people in government, I know people in high places. It’s sort of like the blood libel kind of shit that’s been going on forever.
It’s absolutely blood libel shit that’s been going on forever. But this isn’t the typical QAnon crowd.
Well, no, it’s not the typical QAnon crowd, but if you go far right, far left, you end up in the same place.
They’re handing out flyers. They were last week in front of our shop on 15th that, saying, you know, I’m a white-collar criminal. I’ve been convicted of crimes. I’ve never been charged with a crime in my life, let alone convicted. The flyer is funny. I didn’t really see the flyer. Then a friend sent it to me and it starts off with “Uncool Uncle Kike’s.” And maybe it says, “Yikes.” I’m not really sure what it is, but whenever I do see the protesters on the street, they always start chanting “uncle kike’s, uncle kike’s.” So it’s pretty easy to take it that way.
They actually chant “Uncle Kike’s”?
Yeah. They say it to me when I walk by. Of course.
So there is legit anti-Semitism going on being thrown at you on a daily basis. Is that what you’re saying?
Not daily. Weekly. It depends if I’m up there.
So what do you do? Do you just kind of like brush it off, like it’s annoying?
There’s nothing to do. Most Jewish people I know in Seattle give me this advice: “Ian, it’s just always going to happen. It’s always happened in history. Keep your head down, shut up. Don’t be political.” We’ve reached a point in Seattle where — especially this upcoming election — nobody in businesses, at least the people I know on Capitol Hill, will put any kind of signs up in their windows, because they know if they put a sign up people don’t like, all their windows get broken.
What kind of signs would get your windows broken?
Like, “Recall Sawant,” you’re going to have broken windows. There were people a few months ago that wanted some of the parks swept, and there were some businesses that signed on to it, and they all got their windows broken. And they said they’ll never put the signs up again. Political speech carries a price tag, especially now with the Antifa kids.
The theme behind the protest is, “I’ve bought up massive swaths of the Central District.” I have five properties in the CD, like maybe half an acre, I’m really a tiny little landholder. But the narrative is all the developments, all the condos and apartments that are going up, that I’m really behind them. And that I’m involved with the Vulcan ones, which is crazy. And that my people have a way of hiding ownership and hiding these things.
Who are “your people”?
Yeah. I mean, it’s not that veiled, the anti-Semitism.
I mean, I know this, but it’s still really shocking. Most of the biggest anti-Semitic threats come from the white supremacists on the right. There is very little attention to anything on the left.
The guy that rammed the Capitol in the car that killed the cop, he was not a right guy. He was a Nation of Islam guy. I’ve had Nation of Islam protests in front of my shop. They are a hate group. The Southern Poverty Law Center calls them a Black supremacist hate group. If a Ku Klux Klan hate group protested, I don’t know, a Black business, it would be national news. If the NOI protests me, it doesn’t really matter, because the left doesn’t want to admit they have issues. We’re 10 years behind England. In England, you know, an anti-Semite almost won — that Corbyn guy.
I’m from Seattle. I’ve never come in contact with a white supremacist in my life. I don’t know any; I’ve never been targeted by any. I’m sure they exist. I kind of doubt they exist around Capitol Hill, but most Jews I know have had problems with leftists, not rightists.
So has this changed your own view or your own politics?
Yeah. I guess I’m a centrist Democrat. I’m a party Democrat, like a Clinton Democrat. I’m not a progressive. I don’t even see how the progressives are Democrats.
I’m interested in a bigger story here. As the Democratic party goes further to the left and we see anti-Semitism blending with left-wing politics, I think a lot of Jews are getting a little bit uncomfortable. And they are feeling like — not that they’re going to jump over to the Republican party anytime soon — but there is really no place for them in the Democratic party.
A hundred percent. When somebody like Rashid or Omar will say something anti-Semitic, the left won’t call them out on it. And the left likes to call out the right and themselves and cancel over anything. Except if it’s a Jewish issue. You did something 20 years ago, you said some off-color joke? You’re canceled. You said something anti-Semitic last week? Well, it’s really about Zionism, it’s not anti-Semitic, and you get a pass.
Let’s talk about the gentrification narrative. We should definitely be good to residents and not drive them out. But your family is from the Central District. You’ve been there for over a century. Instead of a narrative about business bringing money to the neighborhood, you are the villain of the story.
Normally, if somebody were talking about gentrification in the neighborhood, it’s not going to be a pot store and a carwash. Those are bringing down property values. Some of the developers tell me that all the time. They don’t like my businesses. But, you know, there’s a trendy coffee shop on every corner. Now there are trendy hair salons, wine bars, coffee shops, doggy daycares. None of these things are “gentrifying,” but a pot shop and a carwash are. And people really do believe that I’ve built all the apartments around here. I’m not a developer. I’ve never built anything in my life.
That obviously has a bit of an anti-Semitic undertone. But doesn’t it go back to the fact that the church had to kind of sell itself off? And now there are condos being put up in its place. Is that part of that story?
Kind of. There are a lot of people who think I bought the church. I’m not a developer. Why would I buy it? A Black guy bought it. The church sued me, and they lost. There was no buffer between pot shops and churches. It wasn’t part of the law. Nobody wanted it to be. The buffers were all about places where kids congregate. Kids don’t congregate in churches, kids congregate in places like afterschool programs, schools, arcades, transit in some cases, playgrounds — but not in churches. I’ve never seen kids fight to go to church or synagogue or anything. They’re probably represented there in the same percentages as they are in mainstream society. There’s been a Jewish business at 23rd and Union for well over a century. This was a Jewish business area. There’s always been one here.
Do you have other, bigger aspirations, like running for office?
Not really. I have more vices than most people have coping mechanisms. I’m even scared this time around to be vocal about who I support. You say something, and windows get broken. When people are regularly attacking people’s houses, it really ramps up the level of fear.
I’ve had activist kids scream at me going down the street. And when there’s a lot of them, they’re very tough, very scary. One-on-one they’re like high school kids from the AV club that would never hurt a fly, but you get 10 people together, and all of a sudden they’re tough guys. Or girls.
I wonder about this, how over the past 20 or 30 years we’ve tried all this anti-bullying stuff. Is this kind of a new form of bullying?
Yeah, but it’s kind of worse. My kid was at school and there was a girl that was in the news a lot in his class who was spray painting City Hall with climate change stuff. And everybody thought it was okay for her to be spray painting City Hall, because she’s an activist.
There are people protesting Planned Parenthood on Madison. Now, those people, are they activists? I guess, kinda. But if they spray painted City Hall, would that be okay? We’ve reached the point where if you agree with somebody’s message, it’s okay for them to bully, to vandalize other people’s property. If you don’t agree with their message, they’re not activists. They’re just criminals. And the left does that just as much as the right.
We have people that interview for jobs here, and on their resume, they put down “activist” as a profession. I’m not sure what it means. Seattle is such a safe city compared to other parts of the country in terms of racism. It’s just fascinating that the antifascists really think that they’re fighting some kind of enemy. I follow the Twitter feeds of all these groups. And they’re always posting about some Proud Boys or Patriot Prayer or some right-wing rally happening in Seattle. Is it really a thing? I don’t know. I don’t think so. If it’s an excuse for them to show how brave they are and go out and throw rocks at cops and run around. Maybe when people are back at school and work things change.
It’s an outlet, right? We need to give people jobs. And counsel these kids not to put activism on their resume.
Well, the parents are proud of their kids for that.
And that’s where I think a lot of enabling comes in. In the interest of making the world a kinder, better place, we’ve actually made everybody like a lot less resilient and a lot more willing to put up fights that aren’t important. The culture of safety is where it ends up going.
I sound like some old dude, but kids have gotten so weak and soft. I have become that old guy, that curmudgeon. But you know, everybody’s a winner, participation trophies, kind of all the things that my right-wing friends go on and on about, I can see a little bit of it. The past year with pandemic, we’ve been shut up in our houses. Well, you know, none of us have been starving. We have Grub Hub. We have like 50 million TV channels. You can’t compare this to like the Great Depression or anything else. We’ve been bored. We haven’t suffered.
I want to jump over to the idea of equity and cannabis, and that it’s harder for Black community members to open their own businesses. And I want to also talk about your philanthropy efforts. It seems like you’re doing a lot, even though you’ve been hit pretty hard this past year, you’re really also trying to invest a bit of money in various causes. How do you see the cannabis business world impacting and maybe redirecting money to certain causes, given that it’s such a profitable industry?
It’s not a very profitable business. Most people have gone out of business or regret ever going into the retail or producer side of the industry. Because it’s a commodity, it’s a very low-margin business. It’s quickly becoming like grocery. This idea that if it’s a profitable industry, it’s not based on data. It’s based on emotion. People always read articles about gross numbers — “a store sold a million dollars’ worth of pot.” The only thing that matters is net profits. We’re the only industry in the country — I’ll say it again, we’re the only industry in the entire United States — where we can’t deduct expenses, because we’re selling a federally illegal drug. We can’t deduct things like payroll. I would never go into this business knowing what I know now.
So the idea that it’s a very highly regulated, complicated business, this is a good first business for somebody to get into with no real business experience, doesn’t make sense to me. I love the social equity project and the people on the social equity task force around cannabis. I wish it would be more data driven. You know, a few months ago it was all about BIPOC communities. They’re underrepresented in cannabis. I think I might’ve been the only one that pointed out BIPOC meant Black and indigenous people. Well, indigenous people are overrepresented in cannabis, because tribes have rights that nobody else has. When you look at the data, the state gives out how much revenue each store does, because it’s all public, and the indigenous stores aren’t included, because they don’t have to be, because they’re a sovereign nation. They have a compact with the state. If we sell a hundred dollars’ worth of pot, 47 percent of that is taxes: ten percent is sales, 37 percent is excise tax. When a tribal store sells pot, all that tax goes to their pocket. I mean, they deserve it, they’ve gotten fucked over a lot in history, so give them this. But my point is, all these discussions about equity need to be based on data.
It’s like when they talk about people of color who own stores, I’ve still never read a definition of what people of color even means. One of the biggest chains in the state is owned by an African guy, but he’s not considered black, because he’s African. The issues get complicated really fast, but the only way to deal with them is through, in my opinion, with data, you know, empirical data, not emotional data. And when you listen to a lot of the social equity task force meetings, it’s about “this isn’t fair, that isn’t fair.” Well, the way I got into pot is I bought my way in, it’s not my first business. I had access to money. I bought my licenses. I just spent money. Is that something anybody else could do? Well, legally, sure. They could have done that if they had the money.
And that’s where the inequities come from. There are other claims that the liquor and cannabis board has systemic racism problems. How would I know if they do or not? I’ve run into a lot of problems with them and frustrations and gone to court with them a few times. And you know, it’s a nightmare. Is it worse for a Black guy? Maybe, I don’t know. But I have experience and money to get through it. I’ve been in other industries just as highly regulated. If you’ve never been in business before, and you look at the pot world, you think, Oh my God, this regulation is unique. If you’ve been in other industries, you realize a lot of industries you have really shitty, stupid regulations.
I could talk about this all day, but I want to just ask you about your philanthropic work.
The more we do philanthropically, the worse it gets. I don’t know what to do. So for instance, this year, before all the protests and everything started, we picked a charity to give money to this year. We picked this thing called Northwest Bail Fund. I don’t really agree with everything they do. I agree that our cash bail system is ridiculous. It’s ridiculously biased against poor people. But the more money we gave them, the more protesters accused us of giving nothing to them, and that our competitors, who they like, were giving money to them. I think we’re a pretty small pot store by Seattle standards now. And we probably give five, 10 times more than our closest competitors in terms of giving money to charity. But the more you give, the more the far left wants. It makes me want to close down, stop giving anything to anybody.
One of the things we’ve done since day one is give our employees healthcare. And I think we’re the only pot company in the state that does that, or did do that. Protesters this summer were saying that we didn’t give our employees healthcare until they started demanding it in June. And that we did it because of the protesters. I mean, they just make stuff up.
Do you think if you started this whole thing in a different neighborhood, in a different time, none of this would’ve ever happened? Is it just the collision of time and place and the industry that was new at the time?
I never should have given a face to my business. We have a pot store a block from here called Ponder, owned by a white patent lawyer, downtown, this is kind of a side hobby business, but nobody knows who he is. So nobody cared. I think the left is smart. They need a boogeyman to get attention, to get their message across.
So you wouldn’t do it, even though you’ve got this very outwardly, apparently successful brand. You wouldn’t actually do it again.
I don’t know. It’s been a shitty year. I’m looking at my list of things I’ve been accused of the past year—
You have a list? Like a journal that you write every day?
It’s just a scrap of paper. I support incarcerating people with minor drug offenses. I helped write the laws to keep black and Brown people out of the cannabis industry. I am banned from going to HempFest. That’s a weird one. I was banned from going to HempFest. I think we’ve had a booth there forever. Oh yeah, we had COVID outbreaks that we covered up.
I remember reading about that one.
It’s bizarre. I’ve been in business for myself for like 30 years. Do you know how many hostile work environment, sexual harassment, any kind of complaints like that I’d ever had? Zero. I run the world’s most formal HR department, and part of HR is COVID. I mean, we went to a mask policy before Costco did. The idea that we were covering up a COVID outbreak. It just makes no sense.
Is it just that there’s some sort of little kind of nuanced detail in there that they’re exploiting? Because I don’t believe that people make stuff up. Or they just literally like, what are we going to say on Saturday? What are we going to say about you today?
People make stuff up. The idea that I’m a child sex trafficker. They made that up. It’s like pizzagate, Alex Jones, InfoWars.
It’s too easy. That one’s already run its course. How could that come back?
I don’t know. I don’t know.
We started out with these anti-Semitic attacks, do you think that any of this is actually a coincidence? Do you think it’s blatant or intentional anti-Semitism?
Well, the very beginning, like five years ago, when we had the problems with the church. The protestors were like, “Eisenberg isn’t even from here, he’s from Israel. He was a member of the IDF.” What else is that?
And the amount of the anti-Semitism in the Black community, I think people underestimate that. I didn’t really understand. I didn’t know anything. I went to Catholic school. I’ve never practiced Judaism. I never really paid much attention to it until the protests started. But when I started to realize that the Nation of Islam guys were yelling at me, and the church guys were yelling at me, they all believed the same thing. It’s just fascinating. It’s not anti-Semitism, because I’m an Ashkenazi Jew, and we were really converted by the Khazars or something. There’s this whole theory. It’s so weird.
So you sat down with an individual and shook hands and you were like, “Hey, what do you think?” And he was like, “You know, this is what I think of you.”
Yes. It’s sort of like, it’s not anti-Semitism, because they believe it’s real. I think as Jews, we underestimate what people believe about us. That’s my takeaway after five years of this.
Check out the Seattle Jewish community calendar.
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This week’s parasha is Tazria-Metzora. Lots of uncomfortable moments here. Purity, impurity, skin diseases, mystery, and the origins of niddah. (Fun fact: Tazria is my bat mitzvah parasha, which means this is my bat mitzvah anniversary.)
Candlelighting is at 7:43 p.m.
Thanks for the in-depth Q&A! It was really fascinating, and he covered a lot of business and equity details that I wasn't aware of. Keep up the great work of covering these difficult topics.