In a New Cannabis Landscape, a Navy Veteran Battles for Racial Equity

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From Dorm Room to Boardroom: Wanda James Fights for Equity in the Cannabis Industry

Wanda James, a former Navy Lieutenant and 1986 graduate of the University of Colorado Boulder, has spent her life navigating the evolving landscape of marijuana legalization. From her carefree days rolling joints with friends on campus to her current role as a prominent advocate for racial justice in the cannabis industry, James has witnessed firsthand how the war on drugs has disproportionately impacted communities of color. Now, as a member of her alma mater’s Board of Regents and a successful cannabis businesswoman, James is determined to ensure that the burgeoning industry doesn’t repeat past mistakes.

Key Takeaways:

  • A Trailblazer: James is a pioneer in the cannabis industry, becoming the first African American to own a legal dispensary in the United States. This accomplishment came after years of witnessing the harmful consequences of racial disparities in marijuana arrests.
  • Fighting for Equity: James is vocal about the need for greater diversity and inclusion in the industry. She is licensing the Simply Pure name to young entrepreneurs from communities impacted by the war on drugs, providing them with an opportunity to build generational wealth.
  • Beyond Legalization: While James advocates for federal cannabis legalization, she also stresses the importance of addressing the systemic issues within the industry. She believes reforms are necessary to ensure equal access and opportunity for all, especially for people of color who have been disproportionately marginalized.
  • A Force for Change: James’s work extends beyond entrepreneurship and policy advocacy. Through mentorship programs and her public voice, she seeks to inspire justice and create lasting change in the cannabis sector, ensuring that its success benefits all communities.

Despite the progress made in legalizing cannabis across the U.S., the industry remains riddled with inequity and racial disparities. While bigger companies are increasingly entering the market, many small, minority-owned businesses are struggling to survive. James is one of the few Black women in a leadership role, and she is determined to ensure that future generations have a more equitable playing field.

James’s personal journey is rooted in her experience growing up in rural Colorado on a ranch with her father, an Air Force veteran and cowboy. Her childhood instilled in her a strong work ethic and a love for animals, which she carries with her to this day. After serving in the Navy, she moved to Los Angeles and worked for two Fortune 100 companies before returning to Colorado with her husband, Scott Durrah, to start a business.

As the couple began building their businesses, the country was experiencing the devastating effects of the war on drugs. The Reagan administration’s policies led to a dramatic increase in arrests for marijuana possession, with Black Americans being disproportionately affected. This period, which coincided with James’s college graduation, profoundly impacted her personal understanding of the drug war’s reach.

James’s firsthand knowledge of the injustices of the war on drugs motivated her to advocate for reform. While she was managing the successful congressional campaign of Jared Polis, who later became Colorado’s governor, she and Durrah opened the Apothecary of Colorado, a medical cannabis dispensary. By doing so, they became the first African Americans to own a legal dispensary in the United States, breaking a significant barrier in the industry.

Their dispensary eventually evolved into Simply Pure Denver, a recreational dispensary. Through this platform, James has become a leading voice for change, calling for federal cannabis legalization and calling out the industry’s lack of diversity and inclusion. She has shared her journey in documentaries produced by The Atlantic and Yahoo, and she was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in the cannabis industry by High Times Magazine in 2018.

James’s advocacy for reform extends beyond personal narratives. She understands that federal legalization is just the first step towards a truly equitable cannabis industry. She emphasizes the need for policies that address the systemic issues that have prevented people of color from thriving in the industry, such as limited access to capital, restrictive regulations, and discriminatory licensing practices.

James’s commitment to creating a more just cannabis industry goes beyond policy advocacy. She is also actively investing in the next generation of cannabis entrepreneurs. By licensing the Simply Pure name to young entrepreneurs from communities most heavily impacted by the war on drugs, she provides them with the resources and support needed to succeed.

This approach reflects James’s holistic vision for the cannabis industry. She wants to see an industry that embraces diversity, equity, and inclusion. For her, it’s not just about legalizing marijuana; it’s about creating an industry that truly benefits all communities.

Her work illustrates the profound impact that one individual can have on a rapidly changing industry. By speaking out against injustices and advocating for change, James is helping to shape a more equitable future for cannabis and for the communities that have been disproportionately harmed by prohibition.

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Megan Roberts
Megan Roberts
Megan Roberts is a career development specialist and writer. She offers valuable insights and advice on job searching, career progression, and professional skills. Megan's articles are aimed at helping individuals navigate the job market and achieve their career goals.