Board of Regents candidate reflects on intersection of cannabis entrepreneurship and racial justice


Wanda James began her career in the cannabis industry after one of her brothers was arrested for selling cannabis for around $160. During his prison term, he picked cotton in a Texas prison.

“When I found out about this, it was just overwhelming enough for us to want to be able to start a business,” said the cannabis entrepreneur and candidate for the University of Colorado board of trustees. “We wanted to put a black face on [cannabis business] and talk about mass incarceration, police brutality and the effects of the war on drugs.

Wanda James and her husband Scott Durrah became the first black entrepreneurs to be legally licensed in America to own a dispensary, grow facility and edibles business. Photo courtesy of Wanda James

Ten years after it was legalized in the state, dispensaries line most city streets and the shopping experience is streamlined and like any other retail experience. But what about the population most affected by cannabis policy?

Black Americans being 3.64 times more likely than white Americans to be arrested for cannabis use and possession with comparable amounts of use across groups, the black population is more likely to be charged with cannabis-related crimes. the cannabis industry because in the beginning you couldn’t have a crime in Colorado and participate in cannabis,” James said. “A lot of people of color have been left behind.”

Black entrepreneurs represent only 2.7 percent entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry in Colorado. Latinx entrepreneurs represent 7.7%. “Even now, the fact that we are so far in [cannabis legalization] that all the early advantages have been taken,” James said. “The opportunity to catch up isn’t really there.”

Access to capital is a major limitation for entrepreneurs of color, and it’s only getting worse as prices skyrocket in the industry. James’ first dispensary cost them around $200,000. Now dispensaries cost millions to start, James pointed out. “There’s a lot of growth available, but big companies are going to make it ridiculously expensive.”

Products sold by Simply Pure Brands. Photo courtesy of Wanda James

When James first opened his business, it was less a financial struggle than a legal one. People were still being arrested and imprisoned for selling cannabis when it was first legalized in Colorado.

“That was our biggest concern was not going to jail and making sure everything we were doing was legal,” James said. “There’s a big difference when you fast forward to today with the concerns and what things look like.”

James’s belongings were searched. Law enforcement went so far as to confiscate all of the merchandise, returning it after they could not prove a crime had been committed.

“No one has been charged, but it’s still pretty scary when it happens,” James said.

The Simply Pure dispensary is located in Denver. Photo courtesy of Wanda James

As more people use cannabis, James hopes it will normalize his use and that the consumption of cannabis products could one day be as common as the consumption of beer.

“There will still be a decade to get through the fridge craze that still exists in the world,” James said. “This reefer craze was sparked in part by the war on drugs. Nixon wanted to have the war on drugs because he was dealing with black people and hippies; the two groups of people he couldn’t stand This allowed the federal government and local governments to shut down these communities and break up all kinds of organization and different things that were happening.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the police became more militarized and focused on policing inner cities and poor communities of color.

“America has always had a class of slave laborers,” James said. “Being able to put black and brown boys between the ages of 17 and 24 in jail has become our class of forced labor. It was easy to do that with the cannabis arrest.

As conversations around cannabis evolve, old stigmas will be confronted.

“Americans smoke cannabis and always have,” James maintained. “The issues behind legalization have been all the negative marketing behind cannabis that people have come to believe about people who smoke pot. When I think of people who smoke weed, I think of Barack Obama, Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps and Sha’Carri Richardson. It was just such fake narrative and fake marketing, and it worked. Now we are trying to undo 80 years of negative history.

In October 2020, Governor Polis pardoned the Coloradans who were found guilty of possession of up to two ounces of cannabis. While this is a start in doing justice to those dealing with the legal ramifications of cannabis use, it’s not a silver bullet.

“The way our laws are written makes it difficult [deliver justice] with the stroke of a pen, which is another problem with our system that we need to look at,” James said. “We certainly work our way through these folders automatically.”

James is the only woman to run for a seat on the University of Colorado’s board of trustees in the November 2022 election. The board oversees the four campuses of the CU system and manages a $5.2 billion budget of dollars.

“I look forward to diversifying the board,” said James. “There hasn’t been a black woman on the board since 1984, when Rachel Noel served on the board. It is definitely high time to include our voice. I can’t wait to move forward with this.

With CU Boulder researching the effects of cannabis supplements, James hopes to have open discussions about plant medicine through his position on the board.

“The idea that I work in cannabis is always going to influence my openness to different types of herbal medicine,” James said. “I look forward to having healthy discussions and being part of the conversations that move the entire CU system.”

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