“Transforming Spaces” is a series about women leading change in sometimes unexpected places.
Place 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 campus. Wanda James, however, didn’t always feel the need to hide. A 1986 graduate of the University of Colorado 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 thing that could have happened was they would have told us to put it away, or take it away, and that would have been the end of 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’s board of regents — and a prominent advocate for racial justice in the changing cannabis landscape.
It was only after college that Ms. James realized she had been living in an alternate reality due to her cannabis use. She learned how U.S. marijuana laws have led to black Americans being sentenced to prison at a higher rate than white Americans despite nearly equal rates of use, setting her on the mission to which she has dedicated her life. she.
Ms. James, 60, has owned several cannabis-related businesses over the years, including a pair of dispensaries and an edibles company, which has given her a platform to speak out about what she believes are racial injustices in the field. She has been at the forefront of calling for the legalization of cannabis at the state and federal levels. Federal scientists, in recent reports, recommended easing restrictions on marijuana, a so-called Schedule I drug like heroin, and reclassifying it to a Schedule III drug, along with ketamine and testosterone.
“Wanda is a force of nature!” said Senator John Hickenlooper, the former Colorado governor who appointed Ms. James to a task force that made 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, pushing larger companies to engage in an increasingly mainstream industry, Ms. James is one of the few Black women in a leadership role. Several small cannabis businesses, run mostly by people of color and women — many of whom were healthcare workers who saw the benefits of medical marijuana for those they cared for — have been pushed out of this space, Ms. James.
In fact, female ownership of cannabis businesses dropped to 16.4% in 2023 from 22.2% in 2022, with racial minorities accounting for just 18.7% of owners, according to a report from MJBiz Daily, a publication that covers cannabis-related legal and financial news. .
These days, James is not only pushing 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 in the industry to ensure more people who look like her hold leadership roles.
She believes that by becoming a dispensary owner and now a leader in an industry with policies that have historically harmed Black and Latino people, she could reclaim some power for targeted minorities in communities that were hotbeds of marijuana arrests. In New York, for example, state cannabis regulators documented a staggering 1.2 million marijuana arrests that disproportionately targeted Blacks and Latinos over the age of 42.
“There’s so much happening in the industry where it hasn’t been a promising place that looks at 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 ranch full of dogs, rabbits, chickens and guinea pigs. Her father, a single parent and Air Force veteran, was a cowboy and they often rode horses together.
The passion for animal care continued. Ms James has taken in more than 30 dogs over the years, including some found on the streets. Like her father, she joined the Army, becoming the first black woman to complete the University of Colorado’s 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 property manager in West Hollywood and another pot smoker, with whom she opened several restaurants in Colorado and California. Ms. James’ Rottweiler, Onyx, was the bridesmaid at their wedding.
While the couple was building their business, the country was feeling the long-term impact of President Ronald Reagan’s hard-line policies on cannabis. Reagan’s Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 – the year James graduated from college – “flooded the federal system with people convicted of low-level and non-drug crimes violent,” 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% of those arrested were black. .
“They were the demographic least likely to have a family friend who was a lawyer and the least likely to have parents or family money to be able to get them out of the situation that night,” Ms. James said.
These statistics remained front and center for Ms. James as she pursued ownership of a cannabis company 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, becoming the first African Americans to own a legal dispensary in the United States. They later closed the medical dispensary to open an edibles company, Simply Pure, which in 2015 became Simply Pure Denver, a recreational dispensary.
“She is a pioneer,” said Tahir Johnson, a student of Ms. James. “When you think of a strong black woman, this is what she embodies.”
As she became a businesswoman and marijuana policy shaper, she had a personal point of reference that she returned to often in her work: her half-brother, who served time in prison for crimes including marijuana possession .
Ms. James has shared her journey in short documentaries produced by The 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 used her platform to call for federal cannabis legalization, which would help dispensary owners reinvest some of the money they paid in taxes back into their businesses, increasing the likelihood of creating “generational wealth,” she said. ; Because recreational cannabis is still federally illegal, dispensary owners are unable to amortize basic expenses, such as staff salaries, unlike non-cannabis businesses.
And he’s tapping into his network to create change. Starting with Mr. Johnson, her mentee, Ms. James is licensing the Simply Pure name to young industry entrepreneurs who come from communities harmed by racial disparities in marijuana arrests.
Mr. Johnson said he had been arrested three times for marijuana possession, and was “honored” that Ms. James chose him to continue her legacy. He plans to open Simply Pure Trenton soon.
“The fact that he has confidence in me to take on this role in the next phase of the organization means a lot to me,” he said.