BY MONA ZHANG
The cannabis industry is often decried as being the realm of white men, despite the fact that the War on Drugs has disproportionately affected people of color. This fact is not lost on Wanda James, who decided to get into the cannabis industry due to her brother’s 10-year prison sentence for marijuana.
Widely credited as the first black woman to own a cannabis dispensary in Colorado, James is working on getting more minorities in on the green rush. Her communications firm Cannabis Global Initiative is trying to change the conversation surrounding cannabis. She also owns Jezebel’s, a Southern restaurant just a block away from Simply Pure, her dispensary. (Their proximity leads to some easy cross promotion—who doesn’t want some fried food with their bud?)
HIGH TIMES recently sat down with James at Simply Pure’s offices, where she talked about the challenges facing the industry, why entrepreneurs should be politically active and what she thinks of Colorado’s regulations.
“You’ve got to get involved,” she says to those who are thinking about joining the cannabis industry. “You can’t change the system from the outside; it’s easier to change it from the inside.”
HT: What made you want to get in the cannabis industry?
WJ: What really motivated me and my husband to become a part of [the cannabis industry] was meeting my brother in 1999. I found out he had been arrested for cannabis. He was arrested for 4.5 ounces, and he got a 10-year prison sentence—of which, for four years, he picked cotton for free in Texas.
To have a black man picking cotton seemed ridiculous. Especially in university where I went to school—University of Colorado—my friends and I would sit out on the front stoop of the dorm and smoke weed. Cops would walk by and be like, “Hey, put that away.” We’d put it away, and I had never known that people were actually arrested for pot. I always thought it was a ticket.
In my professional life, my friends, who are lawyers or doctors or business people, we’ve all smoked pot, so it was never a negative to me. And 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. We knew that they couldn’t make us criminals.
How should cannabis business owners be politically active?
I think that all business owners in the cannabis realm should be active politically because it’s up to us to push this idea that we’re not doing anything wrong and that this should not be criminalized. As long as we act weird about it, and not forceful about it, it gives too many people the opportunity to paint this as a negative industry, or that there is something wrong with people who consume cannabis.
You don’t go to the Coors family and ask them questions like, “Why would you have a beer? Is it embarrassing to have beer? Have you thought of how many people your 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.”
What are some of the specific challenges that cannabis entrepreneurs face?
Banking, and the fact that I am taxed without representation. Explain to me how [cannabis] is federally illegal and the feds will put me in jail tomorrow if we let them, yet they make sure I pay them my taxes for my legal product. That makes no sense to me whatsoever.
The idea that we don’t have a bank account or I can’t get a line of credit is an absurdity. Every time my cash flow is a little short, it literally has to come out of personal funds because we can’t have a credit card or all the things that any other business is afforded.
We don’t have the same write-offs that other businesses are afforded, so it’s extremely expensive to run my [cannabis] business. I can’t write off depreciation and all the things I can for all the equipment that I buy in my restaurant.
I don’t know if a lot of cannabis business owners know this because it may be their only business, but it’s [more expensive] to advertise in any of the magazines. The same ad in a weekly publication for [my restaurant] Jezebel’s may cost me $500, and that exact same size ad in that same publication is going to cost my dispensary Simply Pure $1,500 because it’s a cannabis business.
Have your previous businesses helped you in the cannabis industry?
My background is in marketing and sales, so in my mind, all business start with marketing and sales. To be able to market a business, to be able to know reporters, reach out to reporters, to be able to write a press release, has definitely made it a lot easier in opening up a dispensary.
Running a restaurant in a lot of ways is similar to running a dispensary. I have products at a restaurant I have to sell; I have products in a dispensary I have to sell. The experience of having owned businesses before is definitely valuable.
As a business owner, how do you think Colorado could improve its regulations?
I think Colorado did a great job. Not perfect, but a great job. Hindsight’s 20/20.
Looking back, I would not have had vertical integration. I think vertical integration did a lot to help destroy the medical program by driving prices down to such a low level and allowing the larger dispensaries to really take advantage of having the ability to grow and to sell.
What you find in any other industry is—for example, the restaurant industry—you have chefs that do a great job in creating food and putting on display, but those chefs aren’t farmers. They can’t raise a cow, they can’t distill an alcohol, and it takes numerous types of businesses to make that one business work. So if someone came to a restaurant owner and said “you have to grow all of your own tomatoes, distill all your own whiskey, butcher all your own meat and fish for all your own fish,” it would be an expense that the restaurant owner would not take on. It wouldn’t make sense.
That’s kind of what we did here in Colorado. We made dispensary owners responsible for growing all of their own cannabis and for producing all of their own concentrates. So, I think we should’ve done different licensing for different people and honor the whole entrepreneurial feel.
Tell me more about Cannabis Global Initiative.
CGI started at first as just a simple PR firm. We were trying to help people talk about cannabis in a more positive way and to talk about it more professionally. Then, we had the opportunity to begin to work with municipalities and how politicians started to speak about cannabis.
In working with their talking points and getting them to verbalize more, we started to realize that there are a lot of policy issues out there that need to be addressed.
Last year in Colorado, CGI worked on the sealing of the records bill, which unfortunately didn’t get out of committee. Why can’t we seal your records if you had a cannabis conviction for what would now be completely legal? It doesn’t make sense that I still have to tell an employer, “I got caught with pot back in 1994.”
We wanted to seal those records and for whatever reason, they just can’t seem to move that out of committee. It’s funny to me that Colorado can make all of these great waves [in cannabis] and move forward with all these business owners who can make $100 million in sales. We’ve created all these new entrepreneurs, but we just can’t seem to figure out how to get more minority involvement, even though there is a company like CGI telling them how to do it. They’re still ignoring it. So, it’s insulting.
Do you have any advice for aspiring cannabis entrepreneurs?
Do it. You’ve got to get involved. You can’t change the system from the outside; it’s easier to change it from the inside. Anything that you can do to become a part of the industry, do so.
The beautiful thing about this industry is that you don’t have to be a dispensary owner or a grower. There are so many things that are now being produced. There are chefs who are doing high-end dinners and pairings, there are people who are creating marketing and product-based things. There are PR firms, there are legal firms, there are design firms. So whatever it is that you do in your business life, you can make that part of this industry.
Bloom where you’re planted, get your foot in the door. Once you’re in, it becomes a lot easier to say, “Yeah, I would like to be a dispensary owner,” or “You know what, I’d like to be a grower.” You can change and grow with the industry when it presents new opportunities.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.