Wanda James. (Submitted)

In 2009, Wanda James and her husband Scott Durrah were the first African Americans to own a legal dispensary in Colorado. In this Grown In Q&A, James shares how she got into the cannabis industry to combat mass incarceration and how her love of the plant keeps her focused on the business. 

Grown In: Drawing from your experience pioneering the commercial cannabis industry in Colorado, what advice do you have for entrepreneurs seeking to get into the industry in Illinois?

Wanda James: Ensure you have enough capital and build a strong team. Have a lawyer you believe in. Get involved with all the politicians in your area from city council to the U.S. Senate. If you are not in politics, you are not in cannabis.

Grown In: What impact or influence do social equity provisions in Illinois cannabis law have on Colorado? What about the next wave of states likely to go legal? 

Wanda James: Social equity has a number of angles. As for cannabis, social equity is about righting the wrongs of the drug war and giving opportunity to communities that were left out of the start of the boom we saw over ten years ago. In Colorado, having a felony conviction prevented you from participating and getting first-mover advantage, something all of the larger cannabis organizations were granted. 

The real issue is what impact will Colorado have on Illinois? Since Colorado didn’t limit how many cannabis licenses one company can have, the explosion of monopolies will continue to hurt the market and create barriers to entry which small business people will not be able to meet. I am sure there are numerous large Colorado firms vying for licenses in Illinois.

Grown In: Your background includes the military and politics, where you served as a key fundraiser for Barack Obama and now Colorado Governor Jared Polis. How did you get into pot?

Wanda James: Well, social justice. To be honest, that is what has driven most of the decisions in my life. Since our very first interview we have talked about ending mass incarceration and prison slavery. This has been our primary focus. Prior to 2009, owning a dispensary was not a taxable, legally recognized business. Both President Obama and now Gov. Polis have worked to move the needle dramatically when it comes to cannabis. So my alignment with them comes out of a desire to end the hypocrisy surrounding the plant, to end racial injustice caused by the plant and to end mass incarceration fueled by the plant.

At the beginning of 2009, the Ogden memo made it clear that those operating under state law would not be a target of federal investigation. This memo gave us the permission to open and that was when we discovered that many people were ready to discuss cannabis openly and truthfully. This openness in Colorado, allowed us to use the dispensary to help people come out of the cannabis closet. We offered cover to many professionals and moms to admit that they preferred cannabis over Big Pharma (and martinis) through [her husband and co-founder] Scott’s sold out, monthly cannabis cooking classes at our downtown restaurant, 8 Rivers, before the law said we couldn’t.

We decided to open a dispensary as a way to speak on behalf of the approximately 800,000 people per year arrested for simple possession. Nearly 85% of those arrested were Black and brown people, mostly boys between the ages of 17 and 24. That is the age where you are strong enough to work as slaves for America’s largest corporations – including the cotton industry – but young enough to have little access to real attorneys.

We wanted to expose what the world already knew, which was that cannabis is safer than alcohol and valium. And most importantly, what the world didn’t know, which is: Slavery is alive and a well oiled machine.

The 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, also creates a “loophole” for slaves: Prison. This modern system of slavery consists of highly effective methods for ensuring America’s most funded corporations have free labor or at least greatly reduced cost of labor. Those methods are now commonplace on every TV in the country. They are: the targeting of Black and brown people by local law enforcement for cannabis use; racially biased juries, corrupt judges and privatized prison systems.

Our desire to open a dispensary was also based in the simple fact, we love the plant and consider ourselves connoisseurs. I really don’t understand those that own cannabis business, and don’t like the product. 

Grown In: How can independently operated businesses like yours best compete with heavily funded corporate cannabis companies?

Wanda James: Well, that is the million dollar question. We do well because we were fortunate enough to be doing this for over a decade. As for new businesses coming into the cannabis space, it is the same question that plagues small restaurants in the world of fast food franchises. The number one rule: Produce the best product you can, be a great place to work, and appreciate your customers.

Grown In: Last September during a panel conversation hosted by The Executives’ Club of Chicago, you enthusiastically shared your fondness for mushrooms. How does the fledgling psilocybin industry compare with the cannabis business a decade or so ago? 

Wanda James: I feel that mushrooms are pushing the conversation further about plant-based medicine. The world appears to be questioning if using chemicals that destroy the body is the most effective way to heal the body. The limited studies on plant-based medicine, including mushrooms and cannabis, are promising. As for what people know from our modern history with cannabis and mushrooms, I feel we are ready to have conversations about what we consider to be legal.

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Brad Spirrison is a journalist, serial entrepreneur and media ecologist. He lives in Chicago with his son. Interests include music, meditation and Miles Davis.