In the New Cannabis Landscape, a Navy Veteran Fights for Racial Equality

In the New Cannabis Landscape, a Navy Veteran Fights for Racial Equality


“Transforming Spaces” is a series about women making change, sometimes in unexpected places.


Tuck the towel under the door. open the window. And hide the bong.

For decades, college students have found ways to mask the pungent aroma of marijuana smoke on campuses. However, Wanda James didn’t always feel the need to hide. A 1986 graduate of the University of Colorado Boulder, Ms. James used to sit on the steps outside her dorm and roll with her friends.

It would take decades for Colorado to become one of the first two states in the country to legalize recreational cannabis, but on campus, James was never worried.

Ms. James recalled the campus police saying, “The worst that would happen would be that they would tell us to put it away, or they would take it from us, and that was the end of it.”

Fast forward 40 years: Ms. James, a former Navy lieutenant, is a member of her alma mater board of Regents – and a leading advocate for racial justice in the changing cannabis landscape.

After college, Ms. James realized she was living in an alternate reality with cannabis use. She learned how the United States’ marijuana laws have caused Black Americans to be sentenced to prison at a higher rate than white Americans Despite almost identical usage ratesSetting him on the mission to which he has dedicated his life.

Ms. James, 60, has owned several cannabis businesses over the years, including a few dispensaries and a food company, which has given her a platform to speak out about racial injustice in the industry. She has been at the forefront of calling for the legalization of cannabis At the state and federal level. In recent reports, federal scientists have recommended relaxing restrictions on marijuana, a so-called Schedule I drug like heroin, and reclassifying it into a Schedule III drug along with drugs like ketamine and testosterone.

“Wanda is a force of nature!” said Senator John Hickenlooper, the former governor of Colorado, who named Ms. James to a task force that came up with recommendations on how to regulate marijuana in Colorado. Those recommendations became a model for the two dozen states that have since legalized the sale of cannabis in recreational dispensaries.

But as more states have legalized the sale of recreational cannabis, prompting larger companies to get involved in an industry that is increasingly becoming mainstream, Ms. James is one of the few Black women in leadership roles. Are one. Many small cannabis businesses, mostly run by people of color and women — many of whom were caregivers who saw the benefits of medical marijuana for those they cared for — were forced out of the region, Ms. James said. Has been done.

In fact, cannabis companies are owned by women Falling from 22.2 percent in 2022 to 16.4 percent in 2023 Racial minorities account for only 18.7 percent of owners, according to a report from MJBiz Daily, a publication that covers legal and financial news related to cannabis.

These days, Ms. James is pushing not only for broader cannabis legalization — recreational use of the plant is legal in 24 states and the District of Columbia, but illegal at the federal level — but also to reform the industry to ensure more people can access it. has been like him Fill leadership roles.

She believes that by owning a dispensary, and now becoming a leader in an industry with policies that have historically harmed Black and Latino Americans, she can reclaim some power for targeted minorities in those communities. which were the focus of marijuana arrests. For example, in New York, state cannabis regulators documented a staggering 1.2 million marijuana arrests over 42 years, which disproportionately targeted Black and Latino Americans.

“There’s so much happening in the industry that it’s no longer a promising place to see diversity as a positivity right now,” she said. “We’re trying to find ways to help.”

Ms. James grew up in rural Colorado on a farm filled with dogs, rabbits, chickens and guinea pigs. His father, a single parent and Air Force veteran, was a cowboy and they often rode horses together.

The hobby of taking care of animals continues. Ms James has fostered more than 30 dogs over the years, some of which she found on the street. Like her father, she joined the Army and became the first black woman to complete the University of Colorado’s ROTC program. He served in the Navy for four years before moving to Los Angeles, where he worked for two Fortune 100 companies. She also met her husband, Scott Durrah, then a property manager in West Hollywood and a fellow pot smoker, with whom she opened several restaurants in Colorado and California. Ms. James’s Rottweiler, Onyx, was the maid of honor at her wedding.

While the couple were building their business, the country was feeling the long-term effects of President Ronald Reagan’s harsh policies on cannabis. Mr. Reagan’s Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 — the year Ms. James graduated from college — “flooded people convicted of low-level and nonviolent drug crimes into the federal system.” has arrived,” according to Brennan Center for Justice, In 2007, approximately 800,000 people were arrested for simple marijuana possession, FBI, informed of. Nearly 80 percent of those arrested were black, ,

“A family friend was the least likely demographic to have a lawyer and the parent or family was the least likely to be able to get out of the situation that night,” Ms James said.

Those statistics remained front of mind for Ms. James as she pursued cannabis business ownership and worked behind the scenes in politics.

In 2008, Ms. James managed the successful congressional campaign of Democrat Jared Polis, who was elected Governor of Colorado in 2018. The following year he and Mr. Durrah opened Apothecary of Colorado, a medical cannabis dispensary that first african american Owning a legal dispensary in the United States. He later closed the medical dispensary to open Simply Pure, an edibles company, which in 2015 became Simply Pure Denver, a recreational dispensary.

“She is a trailblazer,” said Tahir Johnson, Ms. James’s pupil. “When you think of a strong black woman, she is the epitome of that.”

As she became a businesswoman and shaper of marijuana policy, she had a personal reference point she returned to frequently in her work: her half-brother, who had spent time in prison for crimes including marijuana possession.

Ms. James has shared her journey in short documentaries produced the Atlantic And Yahoo, and in 2018, he was named one of the 100 most influential people in the cannabis industry by High Times Magazine. He has used his platform to call for federal cannabis legalization, which would allow dispensary owners to reinvest some of the money paid in taxes back into their businesses, increasing the possibility of creating “generational wealth”; They said; Because recreational cannabis is still illegal at the federal level, dispensary owners are unable to forgive basic expenses like employee salaries, unlike non-cannabis businesses.

And she’s using her network to bring about change. Starting with her protégé, Mr. Johnson, Ms. James is licensing the Simply Pure name to young entrepreneurs in the industry who are from communities harmed by racial disparities in marijuana arrests.

Mr. Johnson said he had been arrested three times for marijuana possession, and he was “honored” that Ms. James chose him to continue his legacy. He plans to open Simply Pure Trenton soon.

“The fact that they have trusted me to take on this role in this next phase of the organization means a lot to me,” he said.



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