Veteran.  Entrepreneur.  Policy maker.  Socialite.  Pothead.  Thought leader. The first Black woman to own a cannabis dispensary. Wanda James is that woman.

“I don’t want to run for office.  You have to give up too much of what you believe and what your soul is.  I would like to one day be a thought leader.  You can have the greatest influence on people by starting discussions, inspiring people to talk. That’s something that can’t happen in politics.” 

An Unorthodox Resume 

In 1986, James graduated from the University of Colorado and was commissioned a United States Navy officer in the Naval Integrated Underwater Surveillance.

Before she pursued her own businesses, James was the Southwest Regional Sales Director for Unum Insurance and Avery Dennison, two Fortune 100 companies.  She was Southern California Presbyterian Homes’ Corporate Director of Marketing.

James’ Community Involvement is Impressive: She is a graduate of the Los Angeles African American Women’s Public Policy Institute at the University of Southern California, former president of the National Women’s Political Caucus, former board member for the Starlight Children’s Foundation, former Board member of the Greater Los Angeles African American Chamber of Commerce, former member of the Los Angeles Small and Local Business Commission, and former board member of the University of Colorado Alumni Board of Directors.

In 2008, President Barack Obama appointed James to the National Finance Committee, and during her tenure in that role, she became one of Obama’s most significant Colorado bundlers.

James was named Westword Magazine’s 2010 Marijuana Advocate of the Year for her work in the marijuana industry and has been featured on national and international television shows such as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Smile Jamaica, CNBC’s Marijuana USA, and CBS Sunday Morning Holiday Special: “Eat, Drink and be Merry.”

James owned a Southern restaurant, Jezebel, and is currently the CEO of Simply Pure Dispensary, a recreational and medical cannabis dispensary known for its excellent edibles.

Cannabis Global Initiative

As if all of that wasn’t enough, Wanda James is also a managing partner at the Cannabis Global Initiative, a consulting firm specializing in the destigmatization and legalization of cannabis through marketing, Wanda James, first female dispensary owner in Washington D.C.outreach, and public relations.

CGI works closely with cannabis businesses, coaching them in building a lasting brand.  CGI also works with municipalities and policymakers on the local, national, and international scales, driven by the motivation to end prohibition and provide access to safe, high quality, affordable cannabis.

Race, Gender, and Power

Marijuana law is upheld by systemic racism and is the producer of incredible waste.  Enforcing marijuana laws costs states $3.6 billion a year and millions of lives caught and forever anchored by the criminal justice system but has demonstrated no efficacy in ending illicit marijuana use.  And even though marijuana use is equal between Blacks and whites, Blacks are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for possession.

This is one of the legalization movement’s greatest arguments against prohibition, and while social justice is a large part of the movement’s platform, there remain racial and gender disparities within the cannabis industry.  As in most business sectors, women leaders comprise a very small minority within cannabusiness.

And Black Americans, the people group most affected by cannabis laws, are shut out by state imposed licensing regulations.  People with drug convictions cannot work in dispensaries.  The majority of those ex-convicts are brown folks locked out of a newly legalized industry while they retain the stigma legalization should have removed. And that drives James nuts.

Her motivation to shake up the cannabis industry stemmed from her brother’s past.

She met her brother in 1999 and found out that he had been arrested for possession of 4.5 ounces of cannabis and sentenced to ten years.  He spent four out of those ten years picking cotton in Texas without receiving any compensation. A black man.  Picking cotton.  For free.

Um…

Speaking to High Times about that part of her brother’s life, James said, “To have a black man picking cotton seemed ridiculous.”  She continued,

“When I met my brother, I found out at the time that 800,000 people a year were arrested. Of those 800,000, most were black and brown, which made me want to do something about it.  My husband and I decided to do this because it’s a good business, but also as kind of a political uproar.”

And in another interview with The Root, James said, “So I think, when you start to look at black history, I can’t believe that there are actually black elected officials going around the country trying to talk white folks out of legalizing.  It’s almost like saying, ‘Hey, continue to lock us up.’  Continue to keep focusing on, on the negative, especially when there’s no negative to this plant.”

Wanda James’ is Unapologetic On Purpose

James is very concerned with public perception of marijuana, but not in the way you may expect.  A self-described pothead, she is unapologetically unashamed of her relationship with cannabis.

James stated,

“I’m very excited about my cannabis use.  I’m proud of my cannabis use.  In the same way that ladies at lunch can talk about a fine merlot or a crisp chardonnay, I can break it down for you what’s an excellent Indica or a vibrant Sativa.  It’s time to get real about this.”

To James, the legitimization of cannabis use has to start with cannabis users finding the courage and the confidence to talk about their lifestyles with force.

It’s for this reason that James encourages all cannabusiness owners to engage in the political realm.

She stated, “You don’t go to the Coors family and ask them questions like, Wanda-James‘Why would you have a beer?  Is it embarrassing to have a beer?  Have you thought about how many people you beer kills a year?  We don’t do that to the Coors family.  Or to the McCain family, that has ownership in Budweiser.  Or hell, the Kennedy’s who you know, brought Irish whiskey to America.  We look at them as great, self-respecting families, yet we turn our noses up to people who say, ‘Yeah, I own a dispensary,’ or ‘I sell cannabis,’ or, ‘I use cannabis.’”

Wanda James has made it her priority to use her voice and her clout to advance the legalization of cannabis for all of the right reasons, and the discussions she’s started are only just beginning.

References 

Colorado Bundlers for Barack Obama

Women Grow: Wanda L. James

Cannabis Global Initiative

Other Roots: Wanda James, the first black dispensary owner in Colorado, talks marijuana motivation.

Report: The War on Marijuana in Black and White

How Black People are Being Shut Out of America’s Weed Boom

The Pioneer: Wanda James, the 1st Black Woman to Own a Marijuana Dispensary, Gets Real

The High Times Interview: Wanda James

Dianna Benjamin

About the author: Dianna Benjamin is a freelance writer, teacher, wife, and mom horrified and fascinated by social justice and our inability--yet constant pursuit--to get it right.