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August 20, 2018

Wanda James on why diversity is not just important, it’s essential

Written by Marc Schwarz
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Photo Credit: COURTESY OF SIMPLY PURE

It’s a simple question. Wanda James knows the answer is both simple and complicated, straightforward and nuanced.

“Why is diversity important? It’s important for a number of reasons,” she says. “First, we know with diversity, especially when you have more women involved in businesses, businesses tend to do better. Second, the most important reason, and the most important reason Simply Pure is involved and why we fight for this at the very core of who we are – it’s because black and brown people have been targeted and paid the price on the illegal side of cannabis.”

James, a former Navy lieutenant, is CEO of Simply Pure, a medical and recreational dispensary in Denver and president of Cannabis Global Initiative (CGI), a cannabis consulting firm. With her husband, Scott Durrah, they became the first African-American dispensary owners in Colorado in 2009.

“When you talk about mass incarceration, you’re talking about cannabis arrests. You’re talking about historically 800,000 people a year being arrested for simple possession and of that 800,000, 75 to 80 percent are black and brown.

“If we can participate on the criminal side of cannabis, then these states need to make sure we participate on the business side of cannabis.”

James and her team at Simply Pure NJ are in the process of submitting an application for one of six Alternative Treatment Center licenses the New Jersey Department of Health will be awarding this fall. She will also be the headline speaker at CannaGather NJ’s monthly event Tuesday, Aug. 21 in Jersey City.

Simply Pure NJ is being spearheaded by David Serrano of Harvest 360 and Rani Soto, co-founder of CannaGather. They asked  James and Simply Pure to bring experience to the New Jersey-based team.

“We’ve been doing this for 10 years, we are as influential as anyone in this industry and the team that is coming together under the Simply Pure name in New Jersey is more than qualified to do at least as good and even better than some of the wealthy cannabis companies out there,” says James, who worked on President Barack Obama’s 2008 National Finance Committee.

“It’s not even that this team needs quote-unquote help on the application, because we don’t. And this is why New Jersey when you are talking about putting in a diverse structure, you have to look at how many organizations can do this and are you making sure they are being given the same fair shot as some of the larger organizations that are out there.”

James admits that Simply Pure is relatively small in the cannabis industry – two dispensaries in Colorado, a number of grow facilities and an edibles company. But it’s oversized in terms of influence.

“We are influential because we talk diversity – not only do we talk diversity, we walk diversity,” she says. “From the very beginning we have been fighting for social justice, we have been fighting for inclusion, we have been fighting to make this industry work for people of color. That’s the reason we got into this nine, almost 10 years ago. That’s what we are bringing to the table. We’re bringing the same know-how as these larger, more financed firms, we’re bringing more influence.”

James’ team also includes former NBA player Al Harrington, who was born in Orange, grew up in Roselle and graduated from St. Patrick High School in Elizabeth. Since retiring, Harrington has become an entrepreneur in the cannabis industry and his Viola Extracts products are available at Simply Pure.

James’ passion for the industry comes from a deeply personal place.

“Opening a cannabis company for us was largely political,” says James, citing her brother who was arrested for possessing 4.5 ounces of marijuana and he received a 10-year prison sentence – four years of which included picking cotton for free in a Texas prison. “For us, this is personal. The idea that if we don’t get involved these licenses will go to majority white-owned companies and once again black and brown people will be left out of the growth side, of the making money side when it all does become normal, is just not OK with us.”

 

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