Editor’s note: Drug policy is race policy. To honor drug-policy reformers on the front lines, for Black History Month, the Drug Policy Alliance, in partnership with The Root, is bringing you the stories of four phenomenal people who have been instrumental in shaping conversations around drug policy and its lethal effects on black communities around the country. To launch the series, we speak with Wanda James, CEO of the Denver-based cannabis dispensary Simply Pure.
Wanda James doesn’t like to think of herself as “the first.”
“When somebody brought it to our attention at some point or another, it was completely shocking to me,” James told The Root. “I just don’t think any black person should be the first and only in this industry in 2016. You know what I mean?”
But there’s no shrugging off her history-smashing, future-shaping achievements.
In 2009 James, a former Navy lieutenant who served on former President Barack Obama’s 2008 Finance Committee, and her husband, Scott Durrah, a renowned chef, opened the Apothecary of Colorado, becoming the first black people in Colorado to own a cannabis dispensary.
They eventually sold Apothecary and opened Simply Pure Medicated Edibles, which serviced over 450 dispensaries and one hospice program. According to New Cannabis Ventures, James and Durrah “were the first Manufacturer of Infused Products (MIP) to build their own grow facility, cook with 100% flower, not trim, guaranteed consistency and potency, and operated out [of] a commercial kitchen with all highly trained chefs.”
Then a market shift occurred that demanded lower prices for highly potent edibles; so because James and Durrah did not want to compromise their products, they closed Simply Pure and continued to work toward the full legalization of marijuana.
In 2012, Colorado voted to legalize the recreational use of marijuana; now 27 other states and the District of Columbia have joined in the boom. With that hurdle behind them, James and Durrah reopened Simply Pure, a full-service cannabis dispensary that specializes in medical and recreational marijuana, in 2015. The groundbreaking dispensary boasts a creative menu, ranging from chocolate bars to gourmet cooking oils, making cannabis use both exciting and accessible.
While this accomplishment is remarkable in and of itself, it also positions James to continue to fight the war on drugs that has decimated so many families across the country. From their start owning restaurants in Denver and Santa Monica, Calif., to, in 2009, becoming the first black cannabis dispensary owners in Colorado, James and Durrah have been on the forefront of raising awareness about the “Green Rush” and the wealth of opportunities for black and Latinx people.
As previously reported by The Root, blacks and Latinos are still being unfairly targeted and arrested on marijuana-related charges—even though whites are more likely to sell drugs—and many former felons are prohibited from participating in the nation’s fastest-growing economy.
James was motivated to embark on her journey after learning that her brother, whom she didn’t meet until she was 35 years old, received a 10-year sentence for 4.5 ounces of marijuana. Four years of that sentence was served picking cotton in Texas.
“He and his mother went in front of the judge,” James said in a 2016
Democracy Now! interview. “The judge made my brother a felon. My brother spent four-and-a-half years picking cotton for free in Texas. I always stop on that note, and I say it again: that my black brother—my black, 17-year-old brother—spent four-and-a-half years picking cotton for free in Texas to gain his freedom. That was in 1992, not 1892. This is absurd to me.”
The harsh and pervasive reality of the slave-labor class embedded in our racist injustice system lit a flame within James that continues to burn bright.
In our interview, she talked about the white-male-dominated cannabis industry, the need not only to decriminalize and legalize marijuana but also to destigmatize it, the racial discrimination that exists in our judicial system, and why she is an out-and-proud pothead.
The Root: You are the first black woman to own and operate a marijuana dispensary. How has that been received?
Wanda James: You know what? It’s been amazing. I personally have never had any necessarily negative backlash. We were raided once, which was terrifying, back in 2010. But even then, the response to our raid was congressmen, senators and elected officials all came out and immediately let law enforcement know that we were a legal agency. Law enforcement apologized, brought back all of our stuff.
So I have never, personally, had any negativity at all. But then again, I don’t really allow anybody to come at me negative on this. I shut them down immediately when they even look like they want to start on whatever it is that they want to start on, and the facts are amazing things in shutting people down.
TR: Speak a little bit to that. What are the typical things that you would say? Is it more talking about the stigma of it? And its dangers? What are some of the things that you have had to turn away or some of the negativity that you’ve had to just not engage in?
WJ: Well, for example, right now we’re in a battle with our City Council to allow for longer hours to open. One of the councilmen said he was concerned about his 8- and 12-year-old. Quite frankly, I’m tired of that verbiage, and I’m tired of dispensary owners feeling like we have to kowtow to the, you know, to the mommy lobby.
Yes, we want to have a product that does not get into children’s hands, which is what we do as responsible business owners. But as for your children being out in the world where cannabis exists, that’s a parental thing. You need to tell your children about cannabis, and about alcohol, and about too much sugar and about people that aren’t nice. So the idea that it is cannabis business owners’ job to make your world safe for your children is a ridiculous fallacy that no other business has to face.
TR: That’s a really good point. We interviewed [former NBA player] Al Harrington, and he’s also trying to get into the cannabis industry, and he said one of his main goals was to employ more black and brown people, specifically those who have been affected by the drug war and locked up on marijuana charges, and put them to work, because it really is a gold rush. And black and brown people haven’t been allowed to participate in that. Black people have been the ones primarily affected and criminalized for drug selling and using. Have you been intentional about employing people of color for that reason?
WJ: It’s something that we’re very intentional about. I mean, I look at people of color, I look at women, I look at veterans. I’m a vet, I’m a woman, I’m a person of color. So all of those things are extremely important to me. I’ve been doing this now since 2009.
One of the bigger issues that we have in this industry is when I do put out that I’m hiring, I get 100 résumés and two black people, or three Latinas. Very seldom do I get black people, specifically black women. So part of it needs to be on us to take the onus to stand up and jump into this industry instead of allowing people and naysayers to make us believe that this is not a good place for people of color to be.
TR: I find that interesting for a couple of reasons, because one, you’re absolutely right, but how do you feel that we can go about destigmatizing it in black communities? Does there need to be more outreach about it? Does it need to be made even clearer that this is a business opportunity, maybe going to different communities and talking about that?
WJ: Well, I think there needs to be outreach about it. But I also think that we need to get real, and all of the people that come to the dispensaries and all of the lawyers and all of the doctors and all of the elected officials that pretend like they don’t know what weed is, and they don’t smoke cannabis, need to come to the table and get real.
One of the things that I’m really big on, because of my position and because what I’ve done, and because I’ve worked with former President Barack Obama, it’s important for me to step out and say, “Yeah, I smoke cannabis.” I’ve been smoking cannabis since I was in college. I make no qualms about the fact that I would rather have a joint than a martini.
I’m very excited about my cannabis use. I’m proud of my cannabis use. In the same way that ladies at lunch can talk about a fine merlot or a crisp chardonnay, I can break it down for you for what’s an excellent Indica or a vibrant Sativa. It’s time to get real about this.
TR: I absolutely agree, and this is one reason why your role is so significant in the context of black history. This is huge, you being a woman, you being a black woman. So when you look back over at the course of your career, what do you see your end goal being? When you look back over your career, what do you want to have seen accomplished? When they say Wanda James, what do you want your legacy to be?
WJ: It’s interesting. We didn’t enter this to be the first; nor did we think we were going to be the first; nor did it even appear at the time that we would have been the first. It’s still surprising to me that during that time in 2009 and 2010, 2008, even before, how few black and brown people were fighting to get into the industry back then.
I think that my role in this is significant because of the reasons that we just talked about. I have no shame about this. And when we talk about this, we have to talk about cannabis in terms of facts that here in Colorado, since legalization, we’ve seen over an 80 percent decrease in arrests for cannabis. And guess who was getting arrested mostly for cannabis in Colorado beforehand? We have seen a decrease in drunk driving. We have seen a decrease in violent crimes. We have seen a flat, no increase, in teenage use.
We have seen a 25,000-person increase in jobs here in Colorado because of the cannabis industry. Or we—let me put that better—we’ve started 25,000 jobs. So I think, when you start to look at black history, I can’t believe that there are actually black elected officials going around the country trying to talk white folks out of legalizing. It’s almost like saying, “Hey, continue to lock us up.” Continue to keep focusing on, on the negative, especially when there is no negative to this plant.
TR: But the arrest rates have lowered for white people in Colorado but have actually risen for black and Latino people, right?
WJ: Well, the arrest rates have gone down for everybody [pdf]. Where it has gone up, and it has gone through the roof, is for people under the age of 21. And it’s gone up almost 50 percent for black kids and down 9 percent for white kids. So what’s happened here is corruption in law enforcement; since they can’t arrest people over the age of 21, they’ve decided to indoctrinate us early, and have now started arresting the kids.
And these are the important things that we have to look at in legislation, and as legalization increases across the nation. We have to make sure that some of these laws and these unattended consequences do not continue to happen.
We have to fight on every level. We have to talk about it on every level, but first and foremost, we need to get the elected officials that look like us on the right side of this—and not just in Colorado, not just in Washington, not just in California, but all the way across the United States.
TR: I wish I could try your products, but I’m in Mississippi. So, there is that.
WJ: [Laughs.] See, that’s what I’m talking about, though! How obscene is it that an American in Mississippi will go to jail for standing on the corner and smoking a joint, and yet white boys here in Colorado are selling a billion dollars’ worth of weed and no one’s going to jail?
As a matter of fact, they’re getting written up in Fortune magazine and Business Insider and Time magazine and all these different places. Yet a kid in Mississippi is going to jail? What sense does that make? None at all.
TR: And that goes back to what you said about stigma from within the community as well. People really need to be real about it, because people smoke. But no one wants to talk about it.
WJ: It’s ridiculous! Are there people in the world that can’t deal with cannabis? Yes, there sure are. Are there people that can’t deal with alcohol? Yes, there are. Is diabetes in our community, made worse by the food we eat, what’s killing us the most? Yes, it is. You know, so when you start to talk about people and their issues, you can’t base a whole industry or one person’s weaknesses to stop an entire, positive, forward-moving industry.
TR: Thank you so much for your time and your work in moving us forward in this way, because I really think this is, this is the nucleus of what we have to dismantle. So much stems from the drug war in general, and the oppression of people of color, specifically black people, so thank you for your work.
WJ: You are more than welcome, but like I said, all of this started off for us as fighting for social justice, and there was never a point at which I thought we were going to be the first. We should have done that a long time ago. But this is just the beginning.
When you create avenues to wealth that are built on roads paved with white supremacy, you get the marijuana gold rush. It is past time for the economic system in the United States that has wreaked such violence on black and brown communities to pay us back what it owes us. James is on the forefront to make sure that happens.