Meet the 1st Black Woman to Own a Marijuana Dispensary in CO
Wanda James has worn many hats in the past few decades as a corporate executive, serial entrepreneur, commissioned military officer, restauranteur, and member of President Obama's national finance committee, but her most impressive triumph? Becoming the first and only Black woman in Colorado to own a marijuana dispensary. Fueled by the injustice she witnessed within the Black community and the many African American men and women whose lives were changed for the worst after being labeled a felon for simple possession (while there are Caucasian men making millions off of the plant in other parts of the country), she set out to open Simply Pure dispensary in Denver, Colorado, and is still working tirelessly to change the perception of recreational marijuana. Since it is 4/20, it was only right that we caught up with the woman who proudly calls herself a "stiletto stoner." The wealth of information she dropped left me completely amazed, to say the least.
Mandy: You definitely have an impressive resume; can you start by telling us some of your biggest professional accomplishments?
Wanda: Yeah, I think I’ve been very fortunate to do a variety of different things in my life. An amazing father gives you roots and wings to try different things. Some of the things I’m most proud of: I was the first person in my family to graduate from college. The second, and one of the things I’m probably most proud of in my life, is that I was a commissioned military officer in the navy. We are a huge military family. My grandfather, uncles and father have all served, so to be one of the few women in our family and to actually be commissioned an officer was a really big deal. Leaving the military I was extremely happy to become a corporate executive in two Fortune 100 companies. (laughs) I thought at the ripe old age of 27 that I would be a CEO of a major corporation one day. That was my goal. Well, that changed when I met my husband. My husband is a serial entrepreneur. We dated for about a year and a half and had the opportunity to purchase our first restaurant. That was a really big thing for us as well, so we opened up the Jamaican café in Santa Monica in 1995 or 1994. It just had a wine and beer license since we didn’t even have the good sense to know we were supposed to have a full liquor license.
I was on President Obama’s national finance committee. I was very proud of that. Getting the first Black president elected was a big thing. But I’ve gotta tell you, the thing that I am the most proud of in my life is what I’m doing now. Of all of the accomplishments and things that people think you should be proud of – which I am – this is the accumulation of everything I’ve ever done. It combines my marketing background; it combines my military background from the fact that I had to fight every day to keep this business open (laughs). It's amazing, the social justice aspect of having my eyes open to what’s happening to black and brown people when it comes to this plant; to be able to make a difference. And if it takes a Black woman from Colorado to get everybody’s attention to start talking about locking up our children over a joint to continue with the slave labor in this country, well yeah, this is the thing that I am the most proud of so far.
Mandy: Amazing! So I remember reading that you were the first and only black woman in Colorado to own a marijuana dispensary. Is this still the case?
Wanda: So yes, we are definitely, absolutely, hands-down the first African Americans licensed in Colorado. We were licensed in 2009, so we were the first African American owners to have a dispensary and also the first to have what we call a MIP in Colorado, a manufacturer of infused products, which basically means we can produce edibles. So we were the first Black edible makers in Colorado too.
Mandy: Can you give us a rundown of Simply Pure, the history, and what you guys offer?
Wanda: Yes, I love Simply Pure. Simply Pure was started as an edible company in 2010. It is now a dispensary. We will be bringing back our edible line very soon because my husband is getting ready to open up the first cooking school for cannabis by early summer. Simply Pure dispensary is located in the LoHi neighborhood of Denver. We’re surrounded by 8 of the top 10 restaurants in Denver, including our own restaurant Jezebel’s, which is one block away. We carry high quality products. Our dispensary was designed so that everybody can feel comfortable when they come in. We actually carry the largest selection of concentrates and edibles in LoHi and we love all that we do. Our people are extremely well versed so if it’s your first time in a dispensary we walk you through the process and hold your hand to make sure you feel good about it. We want to take away any stigma that you’re doing anything wrong.
Mandy: Interesting, so what made you shift from being a serial restaurateur to being a dispensary owner?
Wanda: Well there were a few things, and I don’t want to be sorry about this. I think part of the evolution of cannabis is being open and nothing annoys me more than the crowd that’s like, “Well I support medical marijuana, but I don’t know how I feel about recreational marijuana.” So first and foremost, let me say this: I am a connoisseur. I have always been a connoisseur. I have enjoyed cannabis instead of alcohol since I was in college. I’ve never been a big drinker but I’m not opposed to drinking, I do have a bar. However if I have my preference, I would prefer a joint any given day. Coming off of Obama’s national finance committee in 2009, we wanted to make a political change. When we opened up our dispensary it was definitively for political reasons. Now I’m not going to be hypocritical and say that we did not think it would be a good business venture as well, but the idea of politically opening up a dispensary that we could speak about and make people aware of what was happening – that was important. Now 8 years later what we have found is the medical benefits and what we’ve seen medicinally happening with cannabis is amazing. What we see from the business aspect? Amazing. Even from social justice, 39,000 people were arrested in Colorado the year before we legalized in 2011. After legalization we’ve arrested 2,000 people.
Mandy: It seems like there’s still a bit of a stigma when it comes to the cannabis industry, especially in the Black community. In your experience, why do you think that exists and do you see that perception changing?
Wanda: Yes, I absolutely see it changing and it is beyond upsetting to me that we as black folks have not managed to change our understanding of cannabis and keep falling for the 90 years of negative, racist marketing. I am so tired of hearing our Black officials run on, “I’m tough on crime.” No, you’re tough on our children. When I hear a Black politician say that I publicly call them out on it because it’s absurd to me that we are okay handing over our kids to law enforcement. You know, those between the ages of 17 and 24 tend to be the people who get arrested most for cannabis and it feeds the slave labor and privatized prison systems. These are our children. Having the prison system manage our children for us is not correct. Giving a young man or woman a felony completely destroys their life forever in America to the point where they will never recover. For the most part, most never do. Very few are able to recover and if they do it’s because they are fortunate to have a family member who owns their own business and can hire them and give them a different way of life. So we need to stand out about that. I’m sure you’ve heard it, “Well you know RayRay hasn’t been up off the couch in 20 years and it’s because he’s smoking weed and he won’t do this, and he won’t do that.” You know that’s ridiculous. If RayRay hasn’t been off the couch in 20 years, it’s because RayRay has other issues. It’s not the cannabis. So when I look at cannabis use, it’s really time for our community to stop damning a plant and understand what the benefits are.
Mandy: When I read about marijuana being legalized and how profitable the industry was, my initial thought was that this could actually change the way Blacks and Latinos are criminalized for marijuana around the country, but it seems like that still isn’t the case. What are your thoughts on Blacks still being criminalized for something that is legal in other states.
Wanda: Well the whole Black and Latino thing is mind boggling and to understand what’s happening you have to understand the prison system and the prison industrial complex. America was built on slave labor. It always has been. They tried to enslave the Chinese and they enslaved the Native Americans. We were a commodity that didn’t die so we became slaves, too. They could abuse us, starve us, work us and we were still there. So fast forward 300 years, it’s no longer popular to work Latinos for less than minimum wage since that’s against the law. People are getting beat up for sending their jobs over to Indonesia and having 12 years old work on Apple phones for $3 a day. That’s not popular. So how does America now exist with these prison contracts? In Texas, for example, one of the largest prison contracts happen to be the cotton industry. The cotton industry will pay private prisons throughout the south to pick their cotton for them. So these privatize prison systems and the people who are invested in them make billions while only paying prisoners 60cents an hour or $8 a day or even less.
They bring in young strong people who are not addicted to drugs. They don’t want to arrest meth heads because if you bring somebody in that’s got an addiction, you have to hospitalize them and you’ve got to detox them and you pay for that. They also can’t work because they’re detoxing. So how do we find strong young people that don’t have drug problems and can work off these contracts? Well… let’s start arresting black and brown people for cannabis. They know that they’re not addicted; they know that they’re strong. They know that their families can’t afford big-time attorneys or even a attorney. So they end up going to jail for ridiculous amounts of time like my brother did for 4.5 years and picked cotton for free. We start to target a group of people to be slaves. That’s where the issue lies. I’ve had people ask me, “Are you against having hardened murderers work off their debt to society?” No, if it was only harden murderers in jail then by all means put them to work to pay their dues. But we’re targeting people for simple possession and at this point we’re arresting marijuana users to the tune of about 680,000 people a year. Not that you’re out there dealing and being Pablo Escobar or Scar Face, but just simple possession. That’s the issue that we deal with.
Mandy: Yes, I was infuriated when I read about your brother and the fact that he was in Texas picking cotton for free.
Wanda: Isn’t that the most ridiculous thing? How is that not cruel and unusual punishment that this government will actually sanction any Black person or anyone to pick cotton, especially a 17 year old on a cannabis charge or any drug charge. That just doesn’t make any sense to me. My brother was not paid. Instead of doing 10 years he got out on parole on 4.5 because of his cotton-picking ability.
Mandy: Wow, and what’s even crazier to me is that we have these minorities who go to jail for possession of the smallest amount of marijuana and now have to jump through hoops for things that are necessary for them to move forward in society like getting a job, loans, voting, applying for housing and so on. It’s like an endless cycle.
Wanda: And there you have it. We’ll put you in jail for 4.5 years, and my brother went through this, you get out and then you go through a whole series of back and forth. So basically what they’ve done is, they’ve created a lifetime slave because they know you’re going to be back in. This is not by accident. This is all very well orchestrated and planned. That’s the sick part about this.
Mandy: So that said, do you foresee more states legalizing marijuana?
Wanda: Absolutely. This horse is already out of the barn and it’s already run a few derbies (laughs). I don’t have any concern whatsoever about the US government not legalizing in all states. I believe the federal government will let it be a state issue. I would like to say I’m positive it’ll happen before Obama leaves office, which I still believe is going to happen. If not, it will happen in the next couple of years.
Mandy: It’s really disheartening that you have Blacks disproportionately arrested for marijuana possession and now you have these white business owners who are profiting off of it. What do you think it will take for more African Americans to begin capitalizing off of that industry?
Wanda: You’re right. It’s absolutely absurd to me that an American in Colorado becomes a billionaire for selling 25 lbs of pot a month and an American in Alabama gets a prison sentence for selling a dime bag of weed. Your zip code in America right now determines whether you’re a felon or a billionaire, which is disgusting. Do I think that this is going to end? Yes. I think we will see all of these states legalize marijuana in the near future. And it won’t be because of social justice; it will be because of financial interest for the states. Colorado made $100Million last year off of the sale of $1Billion worth of pot.
It won’t take much for everyone to figure out that it’s time to change. This is why I’m so open. It’s time for people that look like me and look like you and all of the professionals that use cannabis – if you come home at night and have a joint instead of a glass of wine to relax, why are we still hiding that from people? Now granted, if you work for a big corporation you have to hide it or you can get fired, I get that. But if you don’t have employment looming over you that says that you can’t do this, then it’s time to admit that ‘yeah I smoke a joint.’ And the more people in different walks of life that start to admit that, we will start to understand that this is very normal. Your neighbor gets high. Your teacher gets high. Probably the cop that just pulled you over gets high. Your mom may get high (laughs). So I think it’s time we stop acting like cannabis is something that only “those” people do and realize that it’s a very American thing. We didn’t sell $1Billion worth of pot in Colorado to 21 year olds kids and poor black and brown people.
Mandy: I think I saw somewhere that you used the term “stiletto stoner” and I thought that was hilariously amazing. You might need to trademark that (laughs).
Wanda: (laughs) Yes, I am a stiletto stoner. And this is what I love about this plant. It touches all parts of society. One minute we’re talking about incarceration and what it’s done to an entire community of black and brown people, and the next minute we can sit and talk about all of the babies that have been saved with epilepsy and brain cancer. We can talk about the people that are being helped like Montell Williams with multiple sclerosis, and we’re starting to see that this might have an effect on Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and other neurological diseases. And then in the very next conversation, we can talk about being a stiletto stoner and how much that makes you giggle and how nice it is to be out with my friends when we just talk endlessly after we’ve just smoked a joint together. So there is nothing else right now that can touch almost every aspect – economics, financial, health, and fun – that this plant does.
Mandy: So what advice would you give other aspiring black entrepreneurs who want a piece of that industry?
Wanda: Do it. Do it. Do it. Don’t come up with excuses. They are putting up ridiculous amounts of money to make it difficult for people to get into this industry. People tell me, “Well I don’t have $1Million to invest” and neither do I. But you find people around you and ask your community of folks. You’ll be amazed at how many people will come to you willing to invest. If you can’t find a way to be able to get into the business where you’re actually touching the plant, understand that in the gold rush here in Colorado in the early 1800s the people that made the most money were the people that supplied picks and axes to the people who were working the gold rush. So if you have a degree in marketing, have a marketing company that does nothing but cannabis, or a PR firm, or a design firm. We have people that are designing grow houses, interior designers that design nothing but dispensaries. Every marijuana business right now is looking for designers that understand how to talk to people about this product. If you work as an insurance broker, we have insurance needs. We have real estate needs. There’s so much you can do to be apart of this industry, you just have to get out there and do it.
Mandy: Do you have any other plans for Simply Pure?
Wanda: You’ll start to see Simply Pure in a state by you. We’re looking at taking our CBD, edibles and concentrates and making them the dispensary itself throughout America and the Caribbean. So we’ll see what happens but we’re really excited about the opportunities out there.
Mandy: We’re extremely excited for you. I have to say, I’ve been doing research on Black owned businesses around the country for Official Black Wall Street for the past few years and it always makes me so happy when I come across an entrepreneur who is passionate about our community and making a difference as a Black business owner.
Wanda: You know, that’s one of the other big issues. I found out that there was another Black dispensary owner here in Colorado. I asked who the other one was but that person does not want to be identified as a Black-owned business. So I understand, I guess. I mean everyone has their own business model, so I don’t throw shade on how anybody wants to do their work, but I’m embraced because I’m a Black-owned business. Being Black has never been a negative to me. As a matter of fact, it’s probably the most positive thing in my life. Everything about who we are and what we do, it’s what makes things more interesting. There are lots of dispensary owners out here. Happening to have been a Black woman and being able to talk about it from that perspective is important. So no, I don’t shrink at all from being a Black-owned business. There’s a lot of pride that comes with that. The same amount of pride that comes along with being a woman owned business, too.
You can find out more about Simply Pure marijuana dispensary HERE.