Serial entrepreneur Wanda James, the first black owner of a marijuana dispensary in Colorado, does more than just sell cannabis. She is on the frontlines of the marijuana movement, working to expand the legalization and decriminalization of both medical and recreational use beyond her weed-friendly home state. And she’s busting stereotypes along the way.
“My brand is really political,” says James. “If I had to say what I do, I would say I’m a politician.”
In all, the former Navy lieutenant runs three pot-related businesses: the Simply Pure medical and recreational dispensary in Denver, a cooking school and catering business, and the Cannabis Global Initiative (CGI), a consulting firm that specializes in everything weed. James’s husband and retired Marine Scott Durrah is a renowned chef and owner of three previous restaurants as well as a master of culinary cannabis. Together the African-American couple put a different face on an industry dominated by white men.
Since 2013, CGI has worked with legislators, law enforcement, and community leaders, as well as candidates, on political messaging. James’s political Rolodex is jam-packed, thanks to managing multiple political campaigns. She even made an unsuccessful run for Congress in 2001. James was also on former President Barack Obama’s campaign National Finance Committee and was one of the largest bundlers of political donations for him in Colorado.
When Politics Are Personal
The politics of marijuana are also quite personal for James, who is fighting policies that send marijuana users–particularly young men of color–away for long prison terms for simple possession.
James’s younger brother was 17 when he was arrested with four ounces of weed. He was initially sentenced to 10 years’ hard labor in a federal penitentiary in Texas. “My brother had to pick 100 pounds of cotton every day for four and a half years to buy his freedom,” James says, noting the irony that a young black man was working in the fields some 130 years after slavery was abolished. “It is our job to end this generation’s slave labor.”
The laws hit people of color especially hard, it seems, and convictions on weed counts follow users for life, impacting their ability to get work and sometimes even vote. The Bureau of Justice Statistics shows the number of blacks arrested for possession has been holding steady at 800,000 per year for the past couple of years, after reaching a peak of around 1.3 million in 2007. For whites, the number is much lower, hovering just north of 300,000 per year.
The Brookings Institute indicates that although whites and blacks use drugs at about the same rate, African-Americans are far more likely to be arrested for selling or possessing controlled substances. “This country has never been without slave labor,” James contends, noting, “I’m fighting the same battles as my father and great-grandfather. [Slavery] needs to end.”
“Our politicians have not come out en masse to protest prohibition,” James adds. Most of them, she says, are “fighting to continue to put [people of color] in jail.”
Those arrests, combined with the racial wealth gap, have resulted in an underrepresentation of minorities in the legal weed business because states like Colorado ban the employment of ex-cons. James found that out herself when she hired her brother, only to have to fire him when the law dictated former felons could not be employed in the industry.
As people of color on the legitimate side of legal sale, James is writing a different story. She points out that running three businesses, as well as making appearances at industry conferences and chamber of commerce events, helps fight one of the major stereotypes and stigmas associated with using marijuana: That those who use it are lazy felons.
“They can’t make criminals out of these black faces,” she says of herself and Durrah.
While some cities, like New York, have slightly eased but not eliminated possession laws, only seven other states beside Colorado have legalized recreational use: Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Maine, and Massachusetts.
Former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, a longtime advocate for ending the prohibition of marijuana, says decriminalization alone isn’t going to help the industry or its workforce. In a new article in the American Journal of Public Health, she writes: “Under a decriminalized system, the government prosecutes marijuana growers and sellers, thus constricting the supply chain. This drives up the price of marijuana, making the untaxed illegal product more lucrative, the market for it more competitive and violent, and purchasing it more dangerous.”
Legal sales of cannabis employ nearly 150,000 Americans, according to a recent Leafly report. James employs 34 people in her weed business and says the potential market for legal use is tremendous. For perspective, legal spending (for medical and recreational cannabis) in North America totaled $6.7 billion last year. The illegal market for weed is estimated to be as much as $50 billion, according to Marijuana Business Daily.
“Understand The Plant”
Recreational marijuana sales became legal in 2014, but James’s bumpy road to success started years earlier, and that informed her approach to regulatory control and coaching.
She and Durrah opened a medical marijuana dispensary five years earlier and started selling medicinal weed and edibles, like pot brownies, out of the first incarnation of their Simply Pure brand. James says at that time, the biggest challenge was making up a business plan because this was uncharted territory.
“We had no special licenses; we had no guidelines on how to grow or where to purchase,” she recalls. “Edibles were made by people in their homes.” As a professional chef, Durrah started to worry–not that people would overdose, but that the lack of training in proper food handling could make people sick.
The couple would go on to become major writers of the state’s edibles regulations, which were important to curtail the notorious unpredictability of edible dosing. “We were the first to cook with whole bud and guarantee consistent dosing,” James says. They were also the first to offer 100% organic, vegan, and gluten-free products.
But profits from medical marijuana sales alone are hard to come by, so Simply Pure closed down in 2012. The business reopened in 2015, the year after recreational legalization. James and Durrah had operated a restaurant in the meantime, Jezebel’s Southern Bistro, that they closed last year to concentrate on Simply Pure, now one of nearly 3,000 dispensaries in Colorado.
Recreational licensing has made the business of marijuana more lucrative, but operating a successful dispensary is no get-rich-quick venture, says James, who also coaches other would-be weed entrepreneurs through CGI. First off, “you have to have a significant investment,” she underscores, noting that even as they expanded to a 10,000-square-foot growing space and the first commercial kitchen to produce edibles, she and Durrah never tried to get a bank loan.
“They would have laughed at us,” says James. “Bankers don’t understand the industry.” So at first, they used credit cards to finance their openings and expansions. Then, she says, they found a private investor to help them really break out. Like any other founder in any other industry, finding the right investors take time, says James. “If you feel any strangeness, don’t get excited, do your homework,” she advises. The only way to be successful in cannabis is to establish a company in a compliant manner. And that takes time, patience, and a good attorney, she notes.
James and Durrah are doing what they can to diversify the cannabis industry with their own businesses. Of the 34 people they employ between Simply Pure and CGI, 45% are women and one-third are people of color. That number is likely to increase soon, says James, as Simply Pure expands into the wholesale business next year.
But above all, James emphasizes, she herself uses cannabis. “If you come to my house for dinner, cannabis will be used in the same way as wine and beer.” Not only does this help normalize usage, she contends, it’s also essential to help the business. “If you don’t like cannabis recreationally, please don’t try to start a business in it, because to understand the industry you need to understand the plant.”