“Transforming Spaces” is a series about women driving change in sometimes unexpected places.
Jam the towel under the door. Open the window. And hide the bong.
For decades, college students have found ways to mask the pungent aroma of marijuana smoke on campuses. Wanda James, however, did not always feel a need to hide. A 1986 graduate of the University of Colorado Boulder, Ms. James would sit on the steps outside her dorm and roll joints with her friends.
It would be decades before Colorado became one of the first two states in the country to legalize recreational cannabis, but on campus, James never worried.
“The worst that would happen is they would tell us to put it away, or they might take it from us, and that was the end of it,” Ms. James recalled of the campus police.
Fast forward 40 years: Ms. James, a former Navy lieutenant, is a member of her alma mater’s Board of Regents — and a prominent advocate of racial justice in the changing cannabis landscape.
It wasn’t until after college that Ms. James realized she had been living in something of an alternate reality with her cannabis use. She learned how the United States’ marijuana laws have led to Black Americans’ being sentenced to prison at a higher rate than white Americans despite near equal usage rates, setting her on the mission to which she has dedicated her life.
Ms. James, 60, has owned multiple cannabis businesses over the years, including a pair of dispensaries and an edible company, which has given her a platform to speak about what she believes to be racial injustices in the industry. She has been at the forefront of calling for cannabis legalization at the state and federal level. Federal scientists, in recent reports, have recommended easing restrictions on marijuana, a so-called Schedule I drug like heroin, and having it reclassified to a Schedule III drug, along with the likes of ketamine and testosterone.
“Wanda is a force of nature!” said Senator John Hickenlooper, the former Colorado governor who named Ms. James to a task force that came up with recommendations on how to regulate marijuana in Colorado. Those recommendations became a model for the two dozen states that have since legalized the sale of cannabis in recreational dispensaries.
But as more states have legalized the sale of recreational cannabis, prompting bigger companies to get involved in an industry that is increasingly mainstream, Ms. James is one of the few Black women in a leadership role. Several smaller cannabis businesses, mostly run by people of color and women — many of whom were caregivers who saw the benefits of medical marijuana for those they cared for — have been pushed out of the space, Ms. James said.
In fact, ownership by women of cannabis companies fell to 16.4 percent in 2023 from 22.2 percent in 2022 with racial minorities accounting for just 18.7 percent of owners, according to a report from MJBiz Daily, a publication that covers cannabis-related legal and financial news.
These days, Ms. James is not only pushing for wider cannabis legalization — recreational use of the plant is legal in 24 states and the District of Columbia but illegal on the federal level — but also for reform in the industry to ensure more people who look like her fill leadership roles.
She believes that by becoming a dispensary owner, and now a leader in an industry with policies that have historically harmed Black and Latino Americans, she could reclaim some power for minorities targeted in communities that were hotbeds of marijuana arrests. In New York, for instance, state cannabis regulators documented a staggering 1.2 million marijuana arrests that disproportionately targeted Black and Latino Americans over 42 years.
“There is so much happening in the industry to where it has not been a promising place that looks to diversity as a positivity right now,” she said. “We are trying to find out ways to help.”
Ms. James grew up in rural Colorado on a ranch filled with dogs, rabbits, chickens and guinea pigs. Her father, a single parent and Air Force veteran, was a cowboy and they often rode horses together.
The penchant for caring for animals has continued. Ms. James has housed more than 30 dogs over the years, including some she found on the street. Like her father, she joined the military, becoming the first Black woman to complete the University of Colorado’s ROTC program. She served four years in the Navy before moving to Los Angeles, where she worked for two Fortune 100 companies. She also met her husband, Scott Durrah, then a property manager in West Hollywood and a fellow pot smoker, with whom she opened several restaurants in Colorado and California. Ms. James’s Rottweiler, Onyx, was the maid of honor at their wedding.
While the couple were building their businesses, the country was feeling the long-term impact of President Ronald Reagan’s hard-line policies on cannabis. Mr. Reagan’s Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 and Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 — the year Ms. James graduated from college — “flooded the federal system with people convicted of low-level and nonviolent drug offenses,” according to the Brennan Center for Justice. In 2007, nearly 800,000 people were arrested for simple marijuana possession, the F.B.I. reported. About 80 percent of those arrested were Black. .
“It was the demographic least likely to have a family friend that was an attorney and the least likely to have parents or family money to be able to get them out of the situation that night,” Ms. James said.
Those statistics remained front of mind for Ms. James as she pursued cannabis business ownership and worked behind the scenes in politics.
In 2008, Ms. James managed the successful congressional campaign of Jared Polis, a Democrat who was elected Colorado’s governor in 2018. The following year she and Mr. Durrah opened the Apothecary of Colorado, a medical cannabis dispensary, becoming the first African Americans to own a legal dispensary in the United States. They later closed the medical dispensary to open an edibles company, Simply Pure, which in 2015 became Simply Pure Denver, a recreational dispensary.
“She’s a trailblazer,” said Tahir Johnson, a mentee of Ms. James. “When you think about a strong Black woman, that’s what she embodies.”
As she became a businesswoman and a shaper of marijuana policy, she had a personal point of reference that she has returned to often in her work: her half brother, who served time in prison for offenses including marijuana possession.
Ms. James has shared her journey in short documentaries produced by The Atlantic and Yahoo, and in 2018, she was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in the cannabis industry by High Times Magazine. She has used her platform to call for federal cannabis legalization, which would help dispensary owners inject some of the money they’ve been paying in taxes back into their businesses, increasing the likelihood of creating “generational wealth,” she said; because recreational cannabis is still illegal on the federal level, dispensary owners are unable to write off basic expenses, like staff salaries, unlike noncannabis businesses.
And she’s tapping into her network to create change. Beginning with Mr. Johnson, her mentee, Ms. James is licensing the Simply Pure name to young entrepreneurs in the industry who are from communities harmed by racial disparities in marijuana arrests.
Mr. Johnson said he had been arrested three times for marijuana possession, and he was “honored” Ms. James chose him to continue her legacy. He plans to open Simply Pure Trenton soon.
“The fact that she’s trusted me to take on this mantle to this next phase of the organization means a lot to me,” he said.