Wanda James, co-owner of Denver marijuana business Simply Pure. (courtesy of Wanda James)

Other Roots: Wanda James, the first black dispensary owner in Colorado, talks marijuana motivation

Editor’s note: In our Other Roots series, we share the stories of the underrepresented individuals in and around the marijuana movement — women, ethnic minorities and others whose voices aren’t as prevalent in the conversation surrounding legalization. If you’d like to suggest an individual to the Other Roots team — an activist, a budtender, a regulator, an executive — give us a jingle.

Wanda James has built a rock-solid list of cannabis credentials in her divergent career.

She’s a former Navy lieutenant and political campaign manager who was appointed to work on President Barack Obama’s National Finance Committee as well as Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s Amendment 64 Task Force that laid the groundwork for regulating recreational marijuana. She was the first and for a long time only black cannabis dispensary owner in Colorado. She and her husband, Scott Durrah, a former Marine and certified chef, have owned restaurants in Los Angeles and Denver for nearly two decades; they recently sold the popular Jezebel in Denver to focus fully on their cannabis company, Simply Pure.

“We said, ‘Something’s gotta give.’ We had to make a conscious decision about what we want our focus to be. Scott’s focus on cooking and catering and infused cannabis is really important to us. We look forward to being guests (at the restaurant). It’s super positive.”

James says what drew her into cannabis advocacy was the issue of mass incarceration. James’ then-17-year-old brother was arrested in 1996 on a possession charge of 4.5 ounces of cannabis. He did a total of 10 years in the criminal justice system, including more than three years as an inmate in a private prison in Texas where he worked for free, picking cotton. She, meanwhile, could carry at the University of Colorado with impunity. “That incensed me,” James says.

Her current priority for the industry:

Banking and being treated as a real business, with access to capital. That is one of the biggest barriers for people of color. We don’t have family to give us a small gift of $100,000. Why does my graphic designer get to put my money in his bank and I can’t? Why does the Marijuana Enforcement Division get to put money in the bank but we don’t? It becomes absurd.

Her prediction about legalization:

With California going legal, it’s a $5 billion market overnight. Without banking, it just sets up California for a whole host of messes. California makes it an interesting quandary for government, (considering) the level of businesses that will want to have a part, all the auxiliary businesses. The industry will just be on fire at that point.

Does she fear backsliding around legalization?

No. It’s no longer a mom-and-pop business — you’ve got hedge funds invested in cannabis. We’re so far past losing this industry.

How she describes herself:

I’m definitively a pothead, a term I’m extremely proud of. I’m a social junkie, I really love being around lots of different people. Cannabis is a passing of the peace pipe.

What does her mother say about her career choice?

My mom is so proud of me. She says, “Your dad would be so proud.” She’s tickled.

Does she imbibe?

I consume a joint, at the end of the day. I dab more often now because it’s a more concentrated way to be elevated. Edibles I tend to do the least because the effect makes it harder to multitask.

A trait she dislikes in others?

I can’t stand dishonesty in people. You get one shot at life. It’s a deal breaker for me.

A trait she dislikes in herself?

I overthink everything. I think about every possible outcome … it wakes me up very early in the morning.

Her favorite indulgence?

Probably traveling. I love hotels and eating out. Most recent trip was Jamaica. Best was probably Venice. I would like a yacht someday.

The greatest loves of her life?

That’s easy, my dad and my husband.

Her happiest time?

I’m hoping the happiest is still in front of me. I gotta tell ya, I have lived a truly wonderful life. Every decade was fantastic: childhood, high school, college, the military, young adulthood, 30s, 40s inspiring. 50 is so far so good, the most challenging time of my life.

Does she have political aspirations?

I don’t want to run for office. You have to give up too much of what you believe and what your soul is. I would like one day to be a thought leader. You can have the greatest influence on people by starting discussions, inspiring people to talk. That’s something that can’t happen in politics.

Who would she pick, living or dead, to have dinner with?

Outside of my dad, Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, Queen Elizabeth. Historical, powerful badass women.

If she could come back as any person … or thing?

I would come back as one of my dogs. Or an eagle. Have you seen that video where they mounted a GoPro on an eagle? That would be amazing.

Biggest regret?

When I got out of the military, I should have gone to law school. I would have been an amazing attorney. But my attorney friend says you can always hire one. There is no regret.

Favorite possession?

A little gold and crystal unicorn my dad gave me when I was 9. (She lost her father when she was 35.) It sits in a curio cabinet in our dining room along with the ashes of pets, some things from our wedding, the wedding gown,the the last Christmas card from my dad.

Her most marked characteristic?

My outspokenness.

Favorite music?

Classic rock.


“Well-behaved women are seldom written about.”