Years before she played a key role in creating the cannabis industry in Colorado, Simply Pure CEO Wanda James hunted submarines as a commissioned U.S. naval officer. Then, she managed congressional campaigns and worked on Barack Obama’s National Finance Committee. More recently, James’ work on former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s Amendment 64 Task Force Work Groups helped end cannabis prohibition in Colorado—and open one of the U.S.’s first state-legal, adult-use markets.
James, who owns and operates vertically integrated cannabis company Simply Pure in Colorado with her husband Scott Durrah, is also president of the Cannabis Global Initiative, providing communications and marketing assistance to industry and organization members, and coordinate with government officials.
Cannabis Dispensary recently caught up with James about lessons she has learned as an accomplished cannabis entrepreneur as well as her thoughts on how other women can succeed in the industry.
Cannabis Dispensary: Simply Pure expresses a very political philosophy. It also employs "budologists" rather than budtenders and doesn't employ security guards. It looks like the experience is unlike a lot of other cannabis dispensaries. Why is it important to have a company culture and a story that really stands out?
Wanda James: I think that the industry is changing—and I've said this for many years—one day nobody will want to talk to dispensary owners because we'll be like vodka owners. When's the last time you interviewed the owner of Grey Goose Vodka? Soon, this will be mainstream, so then every company will be marketed on what their bottle looks, or whatever their marketing ploy is. But when you start an industry, when you're a part of the beginnings and foundings of an industry, it's important—and especially for one like this that is rooted in so much social justice and mass incarceration and healthcare and now big money—when it's got that many different tentacles and it's reaching that many different things, I think it's important that if you're one of the pioneers in the industry, that you're here for something else other than just your bottom line. It's got to be more meaningful than that.
CD: How has your background in the military and politics has helped you in this industry, and would you advise other people in the industry to seek out experiences in those areas?
WJ: So, the idea of the military for me, anyway, and in the time that I served, was vitally important in my development, A, just as a human being and as a woman. I mean, the military takes the word 'can't' out of your vocabulary. The things that you don't think you can do, the military pushes you to not only be able to do them, but to be able to do them extremely well. So, that's really important because in this industry, all you do is run up against negatives and walls and things that stop you from moving forward. So, if you're somebody that can only get knocked down once or twice and then don't want to get up again, this isn't an industry for you. So, the military teaches you that.
And then of course your background in politics—everything that we do in this industry is political, from being able to stay open late to be able to have the right to be open. To be able to fight for people to have the right to do what 65% of Americans want to have legal. So, everything we do is political in this industry, everything.
CD: Would you advise other owners or managers in the industry to seek out volunteering opportunities or side gigs in those areas? Or does the experience in the industry instill a lot of the same values and thought processes that are valuable to success in the industry?
WJ: No, I don't think that the industry instills it at all. I think that it's really vitally important that you've got a good sense of values before you come into this industry because this industry will rip and will tear at those and will challenge you at every turn. So, no, you've got to have those values firmly in place. The thing about entrepreneurism is, people come at ownership from every different walk of life, different paths, different ways of doing things. There is not one path that makes anybody more successful or less successful. I think that you've just got to figure out what your little corner of the world is going to be. For us, given the fact that we happen to be black and I happen to be a woman and we happen to be vets, clearly social justice is important to us. What happened to my family members [her brother was incarcerated for 10 years for a cannabis conviction, for instance], what's happened to so many black people's family members, when it comes to law enforcement in cannabis, makes our outcry very clear as what we stand for and what we do. But other people come at it from a health-related standpoint. Some people come at it from a Wall Street-related standpoint. I think that ownership and entrepreneurism—those paths are unique to every entrepreneur that walks their road.
CD: What are some of the ways your experience operating cannabis businesses has changed from when Colorado was a medical-only state to after the adult-use market online?
WJ: Volume, volume, volume. Even with Colorado being one of the states that was considered successful under medical marijuana, medical marijuana is a losing proposition. The reason why is because even if you have 200,000 patients in the state, even a million patients in a state, that's your entire customer base. That customer base is just not large enough for a market in Colorado that grew to over 700 dispensaries and 3,000 grow facilities. The medical marijuana market was just—everybody lost money under that. And it also started to give rise to the monopolies that we see today. They were able to purchase a lot of distressed dispensaries during that time, which is why we see folks owning so many dispensaries in Colorado today.
CD: What are some of the main ways the regulatory climate has changed since legalization, just in the last several years? And how have you had to adjust?
WJ: On the good side of it, we've gone through so many different types of testing, and the cannabis that you buy here in Colorado—and the edibles that you buy here in Colorado—are definitively safe. They're clean. We go through a ridiculous level of testing. Technically, the cannabis here in Colorado is cleaner than the strawberries you eat—no, it really is. So, it's amazing from that level and good for the consumer. The bad thing has been ridiculous overregulation. The limits that they have put on people to purchase cannabis, for example, you can go to the Argonaut [Wine &] Liquor store, and you can buy as much tequila as your bank account will let you purchase. But yet, you can only buy an ounce of cannabis—a plant that has never killed anybody versus alcohol, which is responsible for millions of deaths per year. From those kind of standpoints, the hypocrisy is still ridiculous. The overregulation is ridiculous. But the amount of people that are coming into dispensaries, the amount of people that are finding relief with cannabis and the amount of people that are choosing to recreate with cannabis versus alcohol, I think, is all a huge positive that we've seen since legalization.
CD: Do you feel like a “glass ceiling” exists for women in the cannabis industry, and if so, how can that be overcome?
WJ: Oh, yeah. "A glass ceiling"--the glass ceiling is universal, not just in cannabis. It's everywhere. We haven't been able to shatter it on any level. As we're sitting here talking [the morning of March 5], Elizabeth Warren just dropped out [of the U.S. presidential race]. In a lot of ways, this presidential campaign has been a lot like the cannabis industry. It started off with so much promise. It had black people and it had five women running and it had a gay guy and it had an Asian guy and it had a Latino. We had people from all walks of life, we had a few billionaires, we had some millionaires, we had a socialist. Now, all of a sudden, we are down to two old white men.
The industry started off with so much promise. There were hippies involved, and there were loads of women because this was a healthcare issue and women were seeing it work for breast cancer. And the men didn't want to touch this because what a crazy industry. We had so many different people from all walks of life that wanted to be a part of it, and then the rules came in and stopped people with prior felonies from being a part of it. It scared off Latino people. It locked out black people. So, here we are 10 years later—with what? A bunch of old white guys that own the business. It's funny how we always get down to this point, and I'm hoping that things change because, honestly, it's becoming tiresome. I think that women bring a lot to this space. I think that women are doing amazing things in entrepreneurism, and I think that the businesses that are run by women are very, very thoughtful, from the standpoint of, yes, our bottom line is important, but how we get to that bottom line and the products we put out there is usually a little bit more important to a female entrepreneur than it is to her male counterpart.
CD: What advice do you have for other women who are looking to advance their careers in cannabis?
WJ: Get involved. Absolutely, get involved, and most importantly bloom where you're planted. I think so many people come in the industry, and especially women, and we talk ourselves out of it because, “We don't believe that we have a place in the industry because we don't know how to grow weed or we've never been in a dispensary,” when, if you're an accountant, we need you in the industry. If you're a designer, we need you in the industry. If you're a marketing person, we need you in the industry. So, bloom where you're planted, and get involved. And once you're involved, then it's much easier—I should say "less hard"—to grow in the industry and discover where your place is and how you fit.
CD: What do you hope attendees will take away from your session at the conference where dispensary executives will be sharing their lessons learned over the years, or from your part of the session?
WJ: I like the bigger picture. I hope that people walk away knowing that this is a real industry and that if you want to be an owner that there is definitely paths to doing so, from very, very legal, straight up ways of investing and becoming an owner. But more importantly, I hope that people walk away with the idea that you can change things in this country. You can change laws, you can change people's minds and hearts and visions, because we have known for generations that this plant should not be illegal, and we have finally come to a point where we have been able to change not just the legalities behind it but create an entire industry. And I think that women should be very proud of themselves because a lot of this was moved forward by the women that were fighting for healthcare rights with children and babies and fighting cancer, and knew this before the legalities happened. I'm proud to see what women have done and what we pull together. And I'm really hoping to see women move to the top of the line into the head of these mega companies coming out of cannabis.