In a new cannabis landscape, a Navy veteran fights for racial equity

“Transforming Spaces” is a series about women who drive change in sometimes unexpected places.

Wedge the towel under the door. Open the window. And hide the bong.

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

It would be decades before Colorado became one of the first two states in the country to legalize recreational cannabis, but on campus, James never worried.

“The worst that can happen is they tell us to put it away, or they take it from us, and that’s it,” Ms. James recalled of the campus police.

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

It was only after university that Ms James realized she was living in an alternate reality with her cannabis use. She learned how America’s marijuana laws led to higher prison sentences for black Americans than for white Americans. despite almost equal usage ratesputting her on the mission she dedicated her life to.

Ms. James, 60, has owned several cannabis businesses over the years, including two dispensaries and an edibles company, which has given her a platform to speak out about what she sees as racial injustices in the industry. . She has been at the forefront of calls for the legalization of cannabis. at the state and federal level. In recent reports, federal scientists have recommended easing restrictions on marijuana, a so-called Schedule I drug like heroin, and reclassifying it as a Schedule III drug, the same as as ketamine and testosterone.

“Wanda is a force of nature! said Sen. John Hickenlooper, the former Colorado governor who appointed Ms. James to a task force charged with making recommendations on how to regulate marijuana in Colorado. These recommendations have become 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 increasingly dominant industry, Ms. James is one of the few black women to take on a role of leadership. Several small cannabis businesses, primarily run by people of color and women – many of whom were caregivers who saw the benefits of medical marijuana for those in their care – were kicked out of the space, a said Ms. James.

In fact, female ownership of cannabis companies fell to 16.4 percent in 2023 from 22.2 percent in 2022 with racial minorities making up just 18.7% 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 legalization of cannabis – recreational use of the plant is legal in 24 states and the District of Columbia but illegal at the federal level – but also for reform of the industry to ensure that more people like her fulfill leadership roles.

She believes that by becoming a dispensary owner, and now a leader in an industry whose policies have historically harmed Black and Latino Americans, she could reclaim some power for targeted minorities in communities that were hotbeds of marijuana arrests. In New York, for example, state cannabis regulators have documented a staggering 1.2 million marijuana-related arrests, disproportionately targeting Black and Latino Americans over 42 years.

“There’s so much going on in the industry that it’s not an up-and-coming place that currently views diversity as a positive,” she said. “We’re trying to find ways to help.”

Ms. James grew up in rural Colorado on a ranch 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 penchant for caring for animals continued. 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 military, becoming the first black woman to complete the University of Colorado ROTC program. She served four years in the Navy before moving to Los Angeles, where she worked for two Fortune 100 companies. She also met her husband, Scott Durrah, then a West Hollywood property manager and fellow pot smoker, with whom she opened several restaurants in Colorado and California. Mrs. James’s Rottweiler, Onyx, was the maid of honor at their wedding.

As the couple expanded their business, the country felt the long-term impact of President Ronald Reagan’s harsh cannabis policies. The Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 and Mr. Reagan’s 1986 anti-drug law — the year Ms. James graduated from college — “flooded the federal system with people convicted of low-level offenses and non-violent drug-related crimes,” according to the Brennan Center for Justice. In 2007, nearly 800,000 people were arrested for simple possession of marijuana, the FBI. reported. About 80 percent of those arrested were black. .

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

These statistics stuck with Ms. James as she sought to become a cannabis business owner and worked behind the scenes in politics.

In 2008, Ms. James managed the successful congressional campaign of Jared Polis, a Democrat elected governor of Colorado in 2018. The following year, she and Mr. Durrah opened the Apothecary of Colorado, a medical cannabis dispensary, thus becoming the first African Americans own a legal dispensary in the United States. They then closed the medical dispensary to open an edibles business, Simply Pure, which in 2015 became Simply Pure Denver, a recreational dispensary.

“She is a pioneer,” said Tahir Johnson, a mentee of Ms. James. “When you think of a strong black woman, that’s what she embodies.”

In becoming a businesswoman and influencing marijuana policy, she had a personal reference point to which she often returns in her work: her half-brother, who served time in prison for crimes including possession of marijuana.

Ms. James has shared her journey in short documentaries produced by Atlantic And Yahoo, and in 2018, she was named one of the 100 most influential people in the cannabis industry by High Times magazine. She has used her platform to call for federal cannabis legalization, which would help dispensary owners put some of the money they pay in taxes back into their businesses, increasing the likelihood of creating “generational wealth.” , she declared; Because recreational cannabis is still federally illegal, dispensary owners are unable to amortize basic expenses, like staff salaries, unlike non-cannabis businesses.

And she leverages her network to create change. Starting with Mr. Johnson, her mentee, Ms. James licenses the Simply Pure name to young industry entrepreneurs from communities affected by racial disparities in marijuana-related arrests.

Mr. Johnson said he had been arrested three times for marijuana possession and was “honored” that Ms. James had chosen him to carry on her legacy. He plans to open Simply Pure Trenton soon.

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