Wanda James opened the first Black-owned dispensary in Denver — the Apothecary of Colorado — alongside her husband, Scott Durrah, in 2009. The next year in 2010, the pair opened Simply Pure dispensary in Denver.

In the decade-plus since then, James says not nearly enough has been done to support the cannabis industry in her state or on a federal level. James, CEO of Simply Pure, says a bevy of issues still plague the industry, including banking and financing, ensuring social equity, and even the rudimentary step of federal legalization.

“I don’t know why this is still a battle,” James tells Cannabis Business Times. “I’m thoroughly confused, and I’m going to call it cowardice of our entire Congress—both Democrats and Republicans. The fact that we have not stood up and just said, ‘Legalize for God’s sakes and get it done.’ … It’s really only the politicians that seem to have issues with cannabis.”

© Simply Pure 

Zach Mentz: What does social equity in the cannabis industry mean to you?

Wanda James: I think we forget why social equity matters in the first place and why we’re doing this. Right now, unfortunately, regulators and big business in cannabis see social equity as being able to get them more market share. That’s not what social equity was supposed to be. Social equity was supposed to be able to ensure that the people who have been most harmed by the drug war actually have an opportunity to be a part of this industry. And I gotta tell you right now, I am most pissed off at legislators. The fact that we refuse to legalize [on a federal level] is beyond me and thoroughly befuddling.

We legalized cannabis in two states [10] years ago—Colorado and Washington. Colorado is now doing on average about $2 billion worth of sales a year. [Ten] years later, we now have legislators twisting themselves into ridiculous places to be able to carve out things like banking. Why the hell are we talking about banking [10] years later? We are an industry that has passed cotton, rice, and peanuts in this country as far as agricultural product is concerned, and yet we don’t have something as simple as banking.

It is obscene to me that legislators will not legalize. And the reason for this is because the federal government is making more money than anybody off of 280E taxes in this country. And it’s obscene—obscene—that we are being levied a tax penalty that was made for drug dealers like Pablo Escobar. We are registered with the secretary of state. We have legitimate business operations now in 18 states on the recreational level, 38 states on the medicinal level—much more than three-fourths of this country now has somehow or another legalized cannabis, and federally we can’t get this done.

If we want to actually see Black and brown businesses or entrepreneurs have a place in this industry, then we need to legalize. Allow the SBA [Small Business Administration] to have training opportunities and to put loans in place so that we could actually go to a bank and start our businesses. On top of that, we can then start to look at ensuring that businesses have people of color operating from the top down. Because right now, as long as this remains federally illegal, we can’t make any of that happen. We can’t provide loans. We can’t provide carveouts. We can’t insist that businesses have Black and brown people on their board of directors, in their c-suites, and in their management teams. Right. We can’t do any of that.

ZM: Are you surprised at the inaction on federal legalization?

WJ: I am absolutely not surprised. Black and brown people made up 85% of arrests when cannabis was illegal, and we’re still arresting four times more Black people then we are white people … Take a place like Denver, Colorado—34% of the [cannabis] arrests before legalization were Black in a city where less than 10% of the population is Black. And currently, all that I can find, because the state is having a hard time justifying its numbers, is there are two Black dispensary owners in Denver. So we can arrest 34% of Black people for simple possession, yet we can only find two Black people to own dispensaries?

ZM: Can you detail your position on 280E, and explain what is most frustrating about it from your perspective?

WJ: Yeah, this 280E tax penalty makes absolutely no sense. It is the biggest theft by the federal government that I’ve ever seen. The fact that we are penalized in the same way that Pablo Escobar or any other drug dealer has been in America is ridiculous to me. We are registered with the secretary of state, we are governed by the same laws that any other business is governed by, and yet we can’t have a bank account, we have no deductions, and the federal government takes 40 to 60% of your income off the top every year.
Basically when the 280E tax penalty was put into place for drug dealers, it was to effectively take any of the profit that people selling cocaine and other illicit drugs on the street are making, because if we can’t get you for murdering people, we can definitely get you for tax evasion. Since I am not a criminal enterprise and since nobody else involved in cannabis that is registered with their secretary of state and operate under the normal business laws are involved in criminal activity, why are we subjected to the same types of laws that govern criminal activity?

A lot of activists are concerned that if we legalize and we take away the 280E tax penalty, that the larger corporations will become larger. Yes, that’s true. So what? Because the fact is the larger corporations in cannabis can survive 280E because they’re making billions.  What can’t survive 280E is a single licensee. Anybody that just owns a dispensary cannot survive under the 280E tax penalty—cannot be done. Somebody that has a small grow facility cannot survive 280E—cannot be done. So we need to immediately end this 280E tax penalty and allow for banking.

ZM: Where do you stand on the debate in Congress going on over the SAFE Banking Act and Cannabis Administration and Opportunity (CAOA) Act? What would you like to I see happen next in Congress?

WJ: So my background has been in politics for the last 30 years—as a matter of fact, I’m a current candidate for CU (University of Colorado) Regent—and I have worked at the federal level for most of those 30 years. The inaction by Democrats is unforgivable. The inaction by all of Congress is unforgivable. These two competing bills are simple: One allows for equity, one does not. The SAFE Banking Act has no provisions to ensure equity moving forward.

Unfortunately, both of these bills have been set up with false narratives because we can do both. It’s not one or the other. It’s like asking a carbon-based human being, would you rather breathe, or would you rather eat?
So right now my whole thing is: Small businesses can’t survive without banking, so we must get something done. And if the Democrats really believe that Black and brown people are the backbone of this party, then they need to be able to support Black and brown people. So this is why I’m saying it’s a false narrative. Do both, do it right, and it’s not a problem here.

ZM: How do you feel the Biden administration has done in addressing social equity issues in the cannabis industry, and what do you think it might be able to improve upon? Do you have any optimism for the remainder of this administration?

WJ: I’m losing faith in America all the way around, and I don’t know why this is still a battle. I’m thoroughly confused, and I’m going to call it cowardice of our entire Congress—both Democrats and Republicans. The fact that we have not stood up and just said, ‘Legalize for God’s sakes and get it done.’ … It’s really only the politicians that seem to have issues with cannabis. As you know, 70% of Americans want to legalize [adult-use], and … 90% of Americans want to legalize for medicinal marijuana. And it’s funny because 70% of Americans agree on nothing except this. I’m back to that word again: It’s befuddling.

And every politician I talk to when they see me coming, ‘Oh yeah, I’m all for legalization.’ Well then fucking legalize. At this point, I’m tired of being polite and having polite conversations. It’s the old adage, ‘You can’t keep peeing on my leg and telling me it’s raining.’ And I know all this is rude that I’m saying, but there’s no other [way] that I can speak about [it] though except for in rude terms because I’m confused at what every elected official is talking about. In my mind, every single one of them is failing–even the ones who say that they are for this. If you are for it, make it freaking happen. What’s the problem here? Money is being made for the states. Taxation of the plant is going to schools and to homelessness. We are researching this, we’re saving babies with epilepsy, women with cancer, and we’re providing a better way of recreation than something that will destroy your liver and cause you to be addicted for the rest of your life. Yet we just can’t seem to allow this to happen, and I don’t know why. Nobody can tell me why we won’t legalize except for the singular fact that the federal government makes more money than anybody in cannabis. The federal government is the only entity in cannabis right now that is making more money than anybody, and this has to be the singular reason why we won’t legalize. It has to be, because there is no other reason not to do it.

And once again, remembering just because we legalize on the federal level does not mean that every state has to adopt it. But you know what you can’t do? You can’t arrest people for possessing it.
And let me tell you what I think is really rude. I think it’s rude that we are still arresting people for simple possession or for selling small amounts of cannabis when “a big MSO” made $1.3 billion last year … and we’re arresting some kid in Alabama for selling a dime bag on the street last night. That to me is what’s rude.

ZM: If you were the czar of the U.S. cannabis industry, what’s the first move you make?

WJ: We decriminalize cannabis nationwide so that even the states can’t arrest people for possession of small amounts or any nonviolent arrest of folks who are working with cannabis.
[The second] thing I do is remove everybody and expunge every record for everyone who is currently in jail for cannabis possession, or the sale of small amounts.
The third thing that we do is we allow for banking to happen with any of the big banks—and when I say banking, I don’t mean just simply depositing your money at a bank. I mean all the aspects that any small business or large business has for banking, such as lines of credit, merchant accounts, and investment possibilities.
The fourth thing, which I think is hugely important, is that we empower the SBA to give loans to small business owners [and] offer training in cannabis to ensure that small business in cannabis is actually a thing.
The last thing that I would do is when it comes to licensing is that states must incorporate MBE (Minority Business Enterprise) programs, women-owned business programs, and debt-loan business programs as far as licensing is concerned, and that the people not meeting those profiles will not have the opportunity to own monopolies in states.

ZM: Where do you see the cannabis industry going from here? What does it ultimately look when the dust starts to settle?

WJ: Honestly, it’s dismal. There will be extremely limited Black and brown ownership, if any at all. The reason why I say that is because take a state like Colorado, which is a mature state. We have now enacted social equity [10] years after the fact, and now there’s no space in cannabis for social equity. So Denver says that they are going to allow social equity dispensaries to open? There is not one single space where you can open up a new dispensary with current zoning, not one space. So therefore that means there will not be any more social equity dispensaries anywhere in Denver because we waited [10] years to allow them to exist.
And so as the market becomes mature, and what we’re seeing in other states is, the monopolies will come in, drive the price up so high to where small business owners won’t have the opportunity to get involved. It’s like saying, “Why don’t we have any Black-owned casinos in Las Vegas?”

ZM: What are some of the actions that need to be taken to ensure minorities have access to this industry? How does this industry avoid becoming just like any other U.S. capitalistic industry?

WJ: There’s only one way to do that, and that would be legalize, allow for small business loans, and allow for the SBA to be able to give out those small business loans with low interest rates, grants, and training programs. Outside of that, there is absolutely, positively no other way to do this.

ZM: It’s clear you’re not pleased with how your home state has operated in regard to social equity. Are there any states or markets that you feel are doing social equity right, or at least have some of it down correctly?

WJ: Nope. No one. Everybody is hopeful for New York. I’m hopeful for New York. I was hopeful for Illinois, but where did this lottery thing come from in Illinois? That was never a part of anything. So at the last minute, when it looked like we were actually going to be able to do some great things in Illinois, we end up with this lottery system. So I’m hopeful for New York, but we’ll see. Right now, out of all of the states that have allowed for cannabis, no, not one of them has done it properly, not one.

ZM: I recently heard the perspective that social equity and capitalism can’t coexist. Is that something that you think is fair or accurate or has any merit?

WJ: It absolutely has merit. All you have to do really now is even look at the SBA and see how many Black-owned businesses are able to get funding, and that number is also dismal. So yeah, that’s another deeper issue in America. It’s the whole wealth gap issue. Why don’t we have Black and brown entrepreneurs at the same levels that we have white entrepreneurs? It’s strictly an issue of access to capital.

But I want to make sure that your readers understand why this is an issue in cannabis. Our entire community across the nation, from New York to California, from South Dakota to Texas, Black and brown people have paid the price for cannabis prohibition. Mass incarceration in this country has been built on cannabis arrests and mass incarceration is about Black and brown people. So the fact that so many of us and so many of our communities have been harmed by the drug war means that we deserve and should have a huge space carved out for us in this particular industry. That’s why it’s so important that we need to see social equity work.