At a warehouse in north Denver on a recent Sunday evening, an ingathering of professional Jews—delegates to the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly—lumber drunkenly in a circle. Disco lights flash, and “Groove Is in the Heart” echoes through the space. The circle’s center is an open invitation for someone either bold or addled enough to step up and bust a move.
The man who breaks in is Ean Seeb; his hop-stepping elicits whistles and claps from the crowd. While some brace their kippot and dance, Seeb cuts loose beneath a crop of hair that stands somewhere on the border between a brohawk and a fauxhawk. In a sea of clubbing attire and business casual, Seeb, who sports both a pierced ear and a bristly mustache, stands out in his uniform: a green T-shirt that designates him as a member of “The Green Team,” the volunteer wing of Denver Relief, the medical-marijuana dispensary that he runs across town.
A few more participants join him in the center. Two women in their early thirties, who will likely have the spins on the bus ride home, begin to pump their arms wildly and make fish faces. Sensing his work is done, Seeb withdraws to check up on the upcoming meet-and-greet between the Federation VIPs and the Orthodox reggae-rock star Matisyahu, who performed for the crowd earlier in the evening. Seeb, co-owner one of the most successful medical marijuana dispensaries in Denver, is also an owner of E-3, a Jewish nonprofit event company he runs with two friends. E-3 has been hired to coordinate nightlife events for the 2,000-plus participants at the General Assembly.
At 36, Seeb is a man at the right time and place. A former hip-hop dancer, high-school mascot, actor, software tester, real-estate foreclosure mogul, and a kibitzer extraordinaire, Seeb has carved out a niche in the Rockies that couldn’t have existed a decade ago.
In 2000, Colorado passed Amendment 20, which legalized medical marijuana. The initiative received 54 percent of the vote—or about three points more than the 51 percent that delivered the state to George W. Bush that day. The amendment created the state’s medical marijuana registry, a database of patients approved to use pot. To join the registry, a potential patient has to secure a prescription from a doctor. Once the patient has that prescription, they are granted a license by the Department of Public Health, which allows them to purchase up to two ounces of marijuana. In January 2009, more than eight years after the passage of Amendment 20, only 5,000 people in the state had medical marijuana licenses. One of them was Seeb.
“I had had a bad skiing accident in 1996, sprained my back, dislocated my shoulder. My arm was temporarily paralyzed, it still has permanent nerve damage, I still have permanent muscle spasms in my arm,” Seeb told me last week. He tried to medicate with pain pills, but they made him sick, he said. After he cut off the tip of his pinkie finger in a 2005 accident, Seeb decided to apply for a pot license.
“Nobody really knew how to get their medical marijuana license,” he recalled. “I realized there could be a business out of this. So, just word of mouth I started telling people ‘Hey, I could help you get your medical marijuana license,’ and I charged them a lot of money just for helping them meet with a doctor. A lot of money.”
This is where Seeb, who graduated with a degree in business administration from the University of Northern Colorado, became more than your average marijuana enthusiast. Using his license and his official legal designation as a “caregiver,” which allowed him to carry another two ounces of marijuana per patient, he started small with a delivery service. Then, in 2009, Seeb opened Denver Relief with two partners. Meanwhile, between January 2009 and January 2010, the number of patients on the state medical marijuana registry rose from 5,000 to 53,000.
Denver Relief is hailed as the vanguard of the dispensary explosion. In 2009, Seeb and his crew won the inaugural Colorado Medical Marijuana Harvest Cup, a contest for the best pot in the state, sponsored by NORML. They garnered first-place finishes in five of six categories for Bio-Diesel, Denver Relief’s signature strain. The entries were judged on smell, taste, medicinal value, potency, smoothness, and overall quality. Bio-Diesel, which is characterized by an essence of whole bean coffee, is one of the most popular medical marijuana strains in Denver. More recently, another Denver Relief strain, Dopium, was given top-10 honors by Will Breathes, Colorado’s lead marijuana critic. Breathes also praised Denver Relief’s medicinal candy, an accolade that Seeb credits to his childhood lollipop business. Denver Relief now serves several thousand patients.
Seeb is a third-generation Jewish Denver native. Ean, his first name, comes from his grandmother’s name, Estelle. Like many others, his last name bears the hallmark of unintentional immigrant reinvention.
“The story is when my great-grandfather got off the boat, he didn’t speak English,” Seeb told me. “He was a tailor. They asked him his name, he told them what he did, which was ‘zip,’ so his immigration records show Zipp. Just over time Zipp became Seeb.”
Like his great-grandfather’s, Seeb’s name, at least in Denver, is synonymous with his work.
Denver Relief emphasizes social action and community service in part out of a genuine sense of mission and perhaps also to distinguish itself from other dispensaries. The Green Team aids in clean-up following Denver’s massive marijuana festival held each year on April 20, the highest of holidays for habitués of the marijuana community. One Saturday a month from April to September, the dispensary offers bicycle and wheelchair repair, selling the parts at cost and providing free labor. Inside the dispensary itself, there is a canned-food drive, which benefits the food pantry at the Jewish Family Service and needy patients. And in a move that perhaps best encapsulates how pervasive marijuana culture is in Colorado, on Veterans Day Denver Relief offered a 10 percent discount to vets. (Some took the dispensary up on the offer.)
“In order to be treated like any other industry, we have to act like any other industry,” Seeb said. “We just want to run our business and not have all of these crazy legal hurdles and not have all these problems with taxes and banking. By following a model that says ‘Look, we’re doing something that any other business would do,’ hopefully we’ll get rid of some of that stigma.”
Seeb’s longstanding affinity for marijuana certainly hasn’t stigmatized him in Denver’s community of about 80,000 Jews. He’s on the board of directors of the Anti-Defamation League and has held various leadership positions in the Federation. Nowhere was the community’s embrace of Seeb more discernible than at the General Assembly. Throughout the conference, he could be seen coordinating with the leadership, talking with local participants, and engaging passersby to promote the nightlife events. He was a frequent fixture at a booth where a few of his friends who had made aliyah were raising funds for Israeli lone soldiers.
“I don’t feel threatened by the community at all,” Seeb said of his seeming embrace by Denver’s Jews. “If they are making fun of me, it’s certainly not to my face. I feel that I could walk up to some of the top businesspeople or leaders in the Jewish community, and I can consider them my contemporaries; I sit with them in board meetings once a month. Now, I’m not going to say that everything is beautiful and lovey-dovey. But I really don’t feel like they’ve ever said, ‘We can’t use him ‘cause he’s that pot guy.’ ”
Perhaps that’s because Denver Relief is particularly popular among Jews. Seeb estimates a quarter of his customers are Jewish, in a city with a population that’s only 13 percent. “There’s a ton of overlap,” he said. “Obviously I’m not going to say who my patients are, but yes. I see people that I know in my medical marijuana center on a regular basis.”