After serving in the U.S. Navy, then working in marketing and sales for Fortune 100 companies — followed by managing political campaigns — Wanda James had no idea the cannabis industry was where she’d make her mark.
But it was. She’s entered the annals of black history as co-founder of the nation’s first African American-owned cannabis dispensary, Simply Pure Dispensary, in Denver, which she launched with her husband in 2010.
On Saturday, she keynotes Chicago’s first-ever Cannabis Resource Fair.
“I don’t take pride in being the first anything in 2019. Things like ‘first’ and ‘only’ just motivate me to want to open up the floodgates. I mean, it shouldn’t be that way,” said James, who was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in Cannabis by High Times magazine in 2018.
“But if it’s the thing that gets people talking, and if it lets me tell the story of how the cannabis industry has been built on the backs of black and brown people, if that’s what it takes to get people talking about issues with social equity in the cannabis space right now — the fact that we don’t have cannabis ownership — then it’s very empowering.”
James, 56, will be “In Conversation” with Mayor Lori Lightfoot and State Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago), who sponsored the Cannabis Regulation & Tax Act in the Illinois House, from 10:15 a.m.-11 a.m. at the fair, which runs 10 a.m.-3 p.m. at the UIC Forum, 725 W. Roosevelt Rd.
Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana via ballot on Nov. 6, 2012. It took effect in Colorado on Jan. 1, 2014. Illinois became the 11th state to allow it on Jan. 1.
James’ path into the cannabis space was through divergent careers for both she and her husband, Scott Durrah, a former U.S. Marine and chef.
James was born in Seattle, but with a father in the U.S. Air Force, she was raised abroad. She studied military science at the University of Colorado, then spent four years with the Navy’s Integrated Undersea Surveillance System.
She moved to L.A. and spent several years in corporate America, before meeting Durrah in 1993. In the late ’90s, she moved into politics, managing several election campaigns and running for the U.S. Congress herself, albeit unsuccessfully.
The 2000s saw her managing communications for politicians and groups for causes she believed in — serving on former President Barack Obama’s national finance committee in 2007. The couple returned to Colorado in 2008.
After operating five restaurants over the years, they saw a business opportunity when the debate over legalization of medical marijuana, its decriminalization and role in mass incarceration, rose to the forefront. But it wasn’t just the business opportunity that drew them.
“In 1999, I learned my younger brother had been sentenced to 10 years in prison, in Texas, for four ounces of pot. For four years, he picked cotton, before being paroled. And what I learned was that 800,000 people a year are arrested for simple possession — 85 percent of them black and brown boys between the ages of 17 and 24,” James said.
“It’s because of a privatized prison system. This is America’s new slave platform. I became very angry, and we felt very strongly about opening up a dispensary and putting a political spin with a black face on it. We wanted to be able to draw light to this injustice,” she said.
In 2010, she opened Simply Pure Edibles. In 2015, newly licensed for recreational marijuana, they opened Simply Pure Dispensary. In 2016, they opened their first cultivation site. The same year, James was named one of the 50 Most Important Women in the Cannabis Industry by Cannabis Business Executive magazine.
Last year, the couple, who’ve been featured everywhere from the BBC to “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” opened a second cultivation facility and a new medical marijuana dispensary.
James empathizes with the controversy in Chicago over the lack of people of color among initial licensees. She says it’s a natural byproduct of people of color coming late to the game — not being exposed to opportunities when medical marijuana became legal.
“The unfortunate thing is if you’re not involved in medical marijuana, the adult use market is harder to get into,” James said.
“A medical marijuana dispensary might cost about $200,000; an adult use dispensary, anywhere from $2 million to $20 million. So what you see right now in Illinois and Chicago is those adult use licenses going to medical dispensary owners,” she said. “Getting involved early is important, but we still need more ownership by black and brown people.”