One Powerful Woman Stirs the Pot

Local marijuana industry maven shares her journey as an empire builder

Wanda James, the self-proclaimed first black woman to own a cannabis dispensary in the United States, presented at Denver Startup Week, Monday, Sept. 24, untangling the politics behind the cannabis industry's growth.

James admits she and her white friends smoked cannabis while enrolled at the University of Colorado, Boulder in the 1980s. Passersby would simply look and continue walking. After her subsequent military service, James pursued a career in corporate America, wherein she was surprised to discover professionals smoked cannabis recreationally, as well.


"When my brother was 17, he was convicted with possession of cannabis and sentenced to 10 years [in a] maximum security penitentiary," James says. "They allowed him to work off part of his sentence by picking over 10 pounds of cotton daily."

James showed an attorney the paperwork associated with her brother's conviction and started to decode what was happening. She noted the disparity between who is and is not convicted for possession, consumption and distribution of cannabis.

"In 2008, 800,000 people … were arrested for possession, all of which were non-violent drug arrests," James says. "And 85 percent of those non-violent arrests were brown and black boys between the ages of 17 and 24."

"I'm not soft on crime," James adds. "I agree, those who have committed crimes should pay their debt to society … but when the government starts targeting a demographic for slave labor, that is a problem."


Following her military service and some professional experience, James first foray into the marijuana as a profession was in 2009 when she and her husband, Scott Durrah, a Denver-based chef at Jezebels Southern Bistro, launched a cooking class to a sold-out audience called "Creative Cooking with Cannabis." After the success with the classes, they opened Simply Pure, a Colorado cannabis experience. James says she became the first black woman in the country to own her own marijuana dispensary.

She received both political backlash and support from elected officials, including President Barack Obama and U.S. Rep. Jared Polis. 

"If you're not political, you're no in business," James says.


So, what's next for this local entrepreneur?

James' mission is to change the stigma associated with the product and the business, and she points to the plant as an alternative to highly addictive drugs, such as narcotics and alcohol.

Currently, she owns thee cannabis-related companies: the dispensary, a cooking school and a catering company, as well as a consulting firm for those just getting into the cannabis space. 

James is an inspiration to many who are beginning to navigate uncharted territory and immersing themselves in the world of cannabis, as well as a figurehead for women of color in the industry. 

Aliya Gorelick is a student at Colorado State University, majoring in journalism. She participated in a partnership between the University and ColoradoBiz magazine that brought students from Fort Collins to Denver Startup Week 2018. 

Categories: Entrepreneurs