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DENVER (KDVR) — FOX31 continues to celebrate Black History Month, and we are sharing the story of Wanda James who is a pioneer on multiple fronts, including the cannabis industry.  

James is now making history by stepping into a new role at her alma mater, the University of Colorado Boulder, as the first Black woman to be elected to the board in 44 years, proof she’s blazing quite the historic trail.

FOX31’s Joshua Short spoke with James from her dispensary in Denver.  

In fact, the dispensary is historic because James and her husband Scott Durrah became the first African Americans to be legally licensed in the country to own a dispensary. But whether it’s pot or politics, one thing’s for certain, James is always blazing her own trail.  

“I say that all the time. Is anybody shocked that Ernest and Julio Gallo had a glass of wine last night for dinner? No, they’re not,” James said when talking about the stigma surrounding smoking weed.  

Like a fine wine, the cannabis connoisseur’s accolades seem to improve with age.

James is a CU Boulder graduate and the first African American woman commissioned through the school’s Naval ROTC unit. She’s also a military vet. As a former Naval officer, she hunted down submarines. She also joined several big-name campaigns, and not to mention, she married her soulmate, Durrah a former Marine and renowned chef. 

“We knew that we wanted to make a difference in this industry and we wanted to put a Black face on cannabis,” James said. “We wanted to talk about social justice, we wanted to talk about social equity, we wanted to talk about slave labor, and that’s what we have been doing now for 14 years.”  

Thus, the inception of her dispensary called Simply Pure located in Denver’s Highlands neighborhood. She calls it a family business, owning it alongside her husband. Even her brother Rick works there, a crucial piece to the dispensary in more ways than one.    

“One of the most amazing young men that I’ve ever met,” James said about her brother. “I met my brother at my father’s funeral. Our first conversation was, ‘since I just got out of prison.’ When he told me those words, I thought to myself he must have done something horrible, you know, really horrible.” 

James thought wrong. He did four years of a 10-year sentence for possession of marijuana, four ounces to be specific.  

“We used to roll joints on the steps of Libby Hall at the University of Colorado. CUPD did not care,” James explained. “So, to find out that somebody not only went to prison for four ounces of weed, but he picked cotton in Texas, 100 pounds of cotton a day to purchase his freedom for four years. When I heard this, the anger in me was almost uncontrollable that my brother was a slave in the early 1990s.”  

On June 17, 1971, then-President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs, an announcement sparking a new offensive in drug policing. It’s something then-White House counsel John Ehrlichman would later admit in an interview was a political ploy against two of Nixon’s enemies: Blacks and the antiwar left, thus exposing their use of heroin and marijuana, respectively.

“Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did,” Ehrlichman said. 

“That is what has created so many issues in communities of color. Our men have gone to prison,” James explained.  

It can be hard for marijuana dispensaries to be successful though. Pot is a schedule one drug, a drug federal officials define as one with no medical use and a high potential for abuse. Many businesses do not participate in the U.S. banking system and conduct transactions in cash, according to the IRS. 

“It’s amazing to me that we have maintained the schedule one illegal tag and the only reason that the government is doing it is because the government taxes us at a rate almost double alcohol so it ensures that there is no profit in cannabis,” James said.  

Today, men and women 21 years and older are welcomed to James’ Simply Pure Dispensary,  and spaces like it, which for so long have been vilified and weaponized due to politics and concern for children’s safety, something James is well aware of.  

“I’m out here trying to protect our children,” she said. “As you came in, you had to show an I.D., you have to come through a locked door. It’s all behind a counter. We’re out here protecting your children. That’s what I’m trying to do, to make sure that children are protected.” 

James is planning to release a new edible line later in 2023 called BCause.