Wanda James is an entrepreneur, activist, politician, military “brat”, veteran, member of the University of Colorado Board of Regents, and philanthropist based right here in Denver. Her background is simply impressive… or should I say, “Simply Pure.”
Besides being the first Black woman to open a dispensary, Simply Pure, in the United States (along with her husband), Wanda helped pass the bill that legalized cannabis in Colorado, as well as managed two congressional campaigns for now Colorado Governor, Jared Polis, and served on former President Obama’s National Finance Committee. But, before she did any of that she was a first-generation college student, served in the Navy, and had a career in Sales and Marketing.
Wanda is one of the nicest, most chill people I’ve ever interviewed. She was destined to do great work as she has a way with words. Speaking of which, she was given the title “Marijuana Advocate of the Year” in West World Magazine in 2010, included in the “Top 50 Female Executives” by Cannabis Business Executive in 2015, and named “Top 100 Most Influential People in Cannabis” by High Times Magazine in 2018.
Her achievements go on and on, but throughout our chat, we talk less about the past and more about the future of cannabis. And most notably, we discuss her favorite way to consume.
"Career change from what, military to weed or the military to an elected official? When I look at my career as a totality, right, from when I look at all the things it’s taken me into, I think it’s all the same thing because I’ve always wanted to be of service. Even with the cannabis industry, we saw a grave wrong happening in the world. Because cannabis outside of the military -- I mean, the only times I didn’t use cannabis were the years that I spent in the military service because the punishment was so severe for officers and illegal drug use. But cannabis has always been a very benign thing in my life and to discover that people were going to jail in mass incarceration numbers, and normally in dramatically racialized, racist numbers, we saw it as an opportunity to change things. I think I was a military officer because a) It’s what I knew growing up, but when I was younger, I believed that the military was the reason why we’d see change in America and be able to do good things, so I feel like it’s all been the same thing with just different arms."
Advice on Entering the Industry and What it Needs
"The best advice I could give anybody is bloom where you’re planted. So many people idealize, get excited, and romanticize the idea of owning a dispensary or grow facility. Don’t get me wrong, there are definitive moments of great joy owning a dispensary and grow facility, but the amount of money it takes now to open, the amount of know, and business acumen within cannabis to be able to do that, the bar is really, very difficult for new people coming in. So bloom where you’re planted. If you’re a marketing person right now or social media/digital person, then be a social/digital media person IN cannabis. I always say, “Take what you do now and add in cannabis behind it,” because that’s the best way to get started. Whatever it is you do, add in cannabis.
Or now there are huge corporations – and no matter if you feel good about them or bad about them – there are amazing jobs and opportunities to learn about cannabis. It’s like working for Crocs or working for Google. It’s the same type of experience now. Gain your experience before you decide you’re going to open a dispensary or grow operation. And the cannabis industry needs everything every other business needs; we have packaging, design, graphic arts, social media, business-to-business marketing, business-to-consumer marketing, accounting, legal. It’s a real-life business. This isn’t "let me grow a plant in my garage and sell it." That’s not what this is any longer."
The Future of Cannabis
"I’m always hopeful. We’ve got to legalize soon. I think that the number was something like 270 million Americans have legal access to cannabis, whether it’s medicinal CBD or THC. Most of the states in the Union now have some type of cannabis law on the books, whether that’s decriminalized or allows for medical sales or recreational sales. I believe that the federal government must follow suit here in the next couple of years to federally legalize which then opens up the entire cannabis industry to do amazing things.
I look forward to all of the ingenuity coming out of all of the new people coming up with unique ways to consume cannabis. The biggest piece to this is what hospitality will look like in cannabis as it becomes legal; how restaurants will incorporate cannabis into their dishes. I think it’s going to be magnificent and interesting once we end the last bit of reefer madness."
"For years I’ve tried to establish a scholarship based on cannabis funds and call it after my store, Simply Pure Scholarship. I can’t do it at the University of Colorado under that name. I can do it under my name, but not under the name of my cannabis dispensary. Which to me defeats the point because that’s why I want to do it. If cannabis can send people to prison, then cannabis should be able to send people to higher education."
Negative Marketing of Cannabis
"There’s been so much negative marketing. If you look back, even on cannabis – I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that crazy movie, black and white, from like the 1940s called ‘Reefer Madness’ – and it was crazy. Somebody smoked a joint and I think that they killed their mother and had sex with a room full of guys. It was just like this crazy thing. And so for almost over 100 years, we’ve had all of this negative marketing about who uses cannabis. 'Only rejects of society use cannabis or mushrooms or use psychedelics.' Well, no, just about every college kid in the nation, America’s best and brightest, have used all of those. It’s just been this really negative marketing tool that people have bought into."
Coming out of the Cannabis Closet
Being the first Black woman in America to open a dispensary in America, did you experience any pushback from others?
"Oh my god, are you kidding me? There’s an article that came out, the very first article written on us was by a friend of mine named Bill Johnson, that worked for The Denver Post. The reason why I know this is because it came out on my birthday… 2009. [It was] September 17, 2009. It was called, ‘Coming Out of the Cannabis Closet.’ I got so many phone calls from politicians, from people that I work with because I was big into politics. I ran Congressman Jared Polis’ campaign, who is now Governor Polis. I was appointed to Barack Obama’s National Finance Committee and my husband and I have raised money for almost every democrat in town.
We got calls from everybody saying we had destroyed our careers, nobody was ever going to talk to us again. I mean… *chuckles* People lost their minds, you know? I find it kind of funny because we own a Jamaican restaurant and I graduated from CU. I’m like so you guys are surprised I smoke weed?! I think it was because we were outward about it. It’s one thing if you did it in secret, but the fact that you dare to be out about it. That’s what the article was about: coming out of the cannabis closet. But yeah, the pushback was immense."
Biggest Issue: Private Prisons
"When you look at why cannabis is a problem, it’s because it allows us to stack our prison systems with slave labor. It allows the state to collect tremendous [amounts of] money from being able to sell what prisoners do, such as fight fires, work in call centers, all of these things where the prison system makes a tremendous amount of money. That, ultimately, is what the biggest issue is with cannabis."
Keeping Up with Laws
New laws are constantly being put in place on marijuana in Colorado. How does one keep track of what’s going on?
"That’s really one of the most difficult things being in the cannabis business is how often the laws around everything changes: storage, packaging, hours of operation. I mean there are so many different changes with every legislature and municipality. The best way for the average person to keep up with what’s going on is to join your local normal chapter or your Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). They do a really good job getting information out.
For those who are in the business of cannabis already, literally, you got to know your elected officials, get to be a part of their newsletters. If you’re one of the fortunate few that can afford them, this is why so many people have lobbyists these days. They keep you informed about what’s going on at the Capital. There’s just so much happening, it’s really been an interesting challenge being a part of a brand-new industry.
We just got a new thing from the city about how we have to store our cannabis at night, even how we can market it. Whether you can use a billboard, can’t use a billboard. We just lost our text messaging ability to text our loyalty people at our dispensary the deals of the day. We can’t do that any longer. It’s really crazy what you go through."
"We have two new stores that we have licensing agreements within New Jersey. I’m excited now that Simply Pure will be in New Jersey, as well as Colorado.
Like I said, I’ve been a CU Regent now for a little over a month so there’s a huge learning curve in higher education and what we can do to better pave a way for more Colorado students to be able to get their educational needs met at a cost that is affordable and accessible to all peoples, which would be my biggest piece. And also bringing diversity to higher education. Making sure we open the door for more people of color, LBGT+ students, and women as well as faculty and staff. We got a big year in front of us."
Edibles, flower, or wax?
"Edibles, flower, and wax. I think flower because I’m old school. It will always be my go-to. Pass me a joint and I’m happy to share it, it’s like passing a peace pipe. I just love the whole culture of a joint. I really do. I love it. Even in a COVID world, I still love passing a joint.
But, edibles… there’s nothing I love more than when my husband does an infused dinner because there’s so much good stuff that comes out of cannabis in food and the giggles with your friends. And once again, it's a whole different culture of cannabis that I love being a part of.
And then, of course, wax. I don’t dab as much as I used to because… because I don’t. But I really appreciate dabs for people who are experiencing severe pain, it’s something that definitively helps them. Recreational standpoint, the thing I like about dabs is you can do a dab and I’m good for the next hour and a half. Don’t have to think about anything else. So yeah, edibles, wax, AND flower."