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A Fighter Called Wanda

Black neighborhoods were devastated by the war on drugs. As that war ends, Wanda James is fighting on a new front: local cannabis sales, ownership, and advocacy.

 Wanda James sighs and laughs a little apologetically when you ask her how business is going. Then she pauses and says, “Well, I just don’t know where to start.” It’s a common reaction from owners of cannabis-related businesses these days. Whereas the world generally assumes that the first prospectors for today’s green gold rush must be reaping for- tunes, the reality is different: The legal marijuana industry occupies a kind of purgatory where governments and landlords treat them as quasi-legitimate but demand large chunks of the revenues in the form of taxes, fees, and rent. Meanwhile, it’s hard to gain access to capital to open or build a business—and the hedge funds are quickly sweeping in to corner the market.
What makes James interesting is that while some dispensary owners might simply throw their hands at the sky, she and her husband, the chef Scott Durrah, are fighting back. The duo are owners and operators of Denver-based Simply Pure, an integrated medical and recreational dispensary with three cultivation centers. They’re also the first African-Americans in the country to own a legally licensed dispensary, cultivation facility, and edibles company. James considers the collective enterprise a platform as much as it is an entrepreneurial endeavor—in fact, she calls it “America’s political dispensary.”

“Not only are we political, we are damn political,” James says. “If it needs to be said, we’re saying it. I feel like this is what I’m supposed to be doing, and it’s not just about pot. This is about changing what we are in America.”

And her main points, for some, are uncomfortable truths: Minority business owners are drastically underrepresented in the industry, despite the disproportionate number of arrests among black and Hispanic populations; white male hedge-fund opportunists are now rolling in, making entry into the business even tougher; and state and federal governments act like adversaries but cash in like partners.     

“This is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done—and I’m a former military officer, and we’ve owned restaurants,” she says with a chuckle. “It’s ridiculously difficult.”

But she says that after a decade in the business, she is more convinced of the value of cannabis than ever, because she’s seen it help people with cancer and multiple sclerosis and bad backs and arthritis and opioid addiction. “The joy we get out of this,” James says, “is that we’re changing lives.”

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James was always unconventional. She grew up in an Air Force family, traveling around Europe to her father’s various military posts; visiting her mother’s home in the U.K. James went to the University of Colorado, where the privileged class embraced cannabis culture and declared April 20th (4/20) an unofficial school holiday. Despite being well aware of the virtues of marijuana—“since I was 16,” she says, “I’ve preferred cannabis over alcohol”—she stayed away from it as a Naval ROTC enrollee, and after graduation became a Naval officer. 

In 1991, she began a series of corporate jobs, and a decade later ran for Congress in California. She wasn’t elected, but the experience forged deep connections to the political world and led to a spot on President Barack Obama’s finance committee. She also met and married Durrah, the executive chef behind five lauded restaurants in L.A. They ran the food businesses together, before moving to Colorado to open a dispensary, which they saw as a way of planting their flag in what seemed like a freshly reshaped political landscape.

It was as if, she says, “every moment of my life before had prepared me for this moment.”

In those early days in the cannabis industry, their backgrounds felt like insulation against legal problems. “That made it a lot less scary to step out when I knew there were a lot more layers between us and a federal arrest,” James says. “But there were still nights where we went to bed saying, ‘Are we nuts?’”

One aspect of her life made her more determined to succeed than any other. In the 2000s, she met for the first time a long-lost brother from Texas. The news about him wasn’t good: He had recently served prison time. She’d been so sheltered that she figured anyone who went to prison must’ve committed some heinous violent crime. But no: He’d spent 10 years behind bars in Texas—four of it picking cotton—for possessing 4.5 ounces of marijuana. That’s a substantial personal stash, but not dealer level. “Never in my entire life was I aware that somebody I knew had been arrested for possession of pot,” she says.

In disbelief, James asked a lawyer to look into it, and he found that in 2007, 800,000 people had been arrested for marijuana possession—and black people were four times more likely to be charged than whites. “My brother’s story is disgusting,” James says, “but when you multiply it by 800,000, you have a conspiracy against black and brown communities.”

Her cannabis business took some time to take shape. The couple’s first one, which opened in 2009, specialized in edibles, drawing on Durrah’s culinary acumen. They sold that business, and moved on to help the state of Colorado develop standards for edibles—after finding that many products contained unsavory ingredients. James’ advocacy earned her many accolades, including a spot on High Times magazine’s 2018 list of the 100 Most Influential People in Cannabis. A second business was briefly shuttered until Colorado passed recreational-use cannabis in 2014, and Simply Pure opened in its current form in 2015, inside an airy, wood-accented edifice in Denver’s LoHi neighborhood.

The business is thriving. The couple is reintroducing edibles in the fall, and will also launch a line of CBD products. James and Durrah are also looking to expand; Massachusetts, New Jersey and Missouri have potential.

Through it all, James is still loudly questioning why, for example, rents are one and a half times higher for cannabis businesses than for restaurants. Or what other industry pumps a billion dollars in taxes and fees into local economies without getting a single tax break.

Others are speaking up, too. “People of color are still woefully underrepresented in this industry,” says Morgan Fox, media relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association. He cites “generational harms” caused by disproportionate arrests in those populations, and says the problem is exacerbated by federal banking and Small Business Administration policies that choke off access to financial services and capital.

Those limitations make fledgling business owners particularly vulnerable to the likes of Peter Thiel, the PayPal co-founder who is now investing heavily in the industry. In 2018 alone, he poured $200 million into marijuana businesses. U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is among public figures who have raised concerns that white male investors are sweeping in to siphon profits away from populations who have suffered the most from prohibition. She told a House Financial Service subcommittee that “communities decimated by mass incarceration need to see investments with legalization.”

There are, undoubtedly, many more cultural and political battles to be waged, and James will eagerly serve as a general on the front lines. Still, she says, her affinity for the business—and her belief in the power of cannabis—remains unshaken. “Honestly, I love every moment of this,” she says. “Even with all the difficulties, it’s amazing.”