CEO Cannabis Connoisseur Wanda James Reveals How She Planted The First Seeds Of Success

"Up until 2009, the goal of selling weed would have made me a drug dealer, not an entrepreneur. See the difference?"

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In The Smoking Gun, we talk to CEO cannabis connoisseurs about how they planted the very first seeds of success in their careers, how they balance their day-to-day life, and how they are using their work to make the marijuana market more inclusive to people of color.

Society tells us there are two types of people in this world: polished professionals who are CEOs of wildly successful businesses and people who like to get high AF. But Simply Pure CEO Wanda James is living proof that you, too, can be a woman who does both, sis.

Courtesy of Wanda James.

As a veteran, former member of President Obama's Finance Committee, previous campaign manager for congressman-turned-Colorado Governor, Jared Polis, and full-time business owner, there's no doubt that Colorado dispensary owner Wanda James has a lot on her plate. But this trailblazer is on a mission to ensure that every single person in our community has the opportunity to eat. After her brother was indicted and incarcerated for a minor weed offense at only 18 years old, Wanda discovered a discrepancy in the system that was obviously disproportionate to people of color and decided to become the agent of change that she wanted to see in the cannabis industry.

In 2009, Wanda and her husband, restaurateur Scott Durrah, became the first Black dispensary owners in Colorado, and since have used their platform to advocate for the abolition of mass incarceration and create opportunities for people of color in the cannabis industry. Wanda told xoNecole exclusively, "Along the way, we found out that cannabis is indeed, truly medicinal. That we can save people; we could help vets with PTSD...we found out that we can help babies with epilepsy and grownups with MS. So all of a sudden we've gone from a recreational plant that the side effects make you giggle and eat cheesecake, and we found that this amazing plant also heals your body."

I had a chance to sit down, roll up, and blaze one with this trailblazer, who spilled all the tea on how she got started, her love of the plant, and what she's doing to change the landscape for people of color in the cannabis industry. Here's what I learned:

What is your first memory of being introduced to cannabis? 

I was 16, and I was hanging out with a really good friend of mine. He was giving me a ride home and he pulled out a joint and he's like, "You ready to try this yet?" And I was like, "You know what? Alright, I'll try it."

At first, I was scared because I was expecting to be stoned, [like] walls were gonna move and I was going to see pink elephants and my mind was going to be blown, and I was going to be stoned. And what I found was I was delightfully elevated. My thoughts became more focused because there were so many different things that I was thinking and feeling and I enjoyed it.

What does your day to day look like?

I want to be fair. I want people to know that I work my ass off and I need young people and I need women to know that, y'all, what everybody thinks they see, it's like the iceberg, right? That's 20% of what I do. The 80% of what I do is that underside of the iceberg. I am up every single day at 4:30 AM, Saturday and Sunday included. I don't sleep in; I can't sleep in. The minute I get up, I turn on my computer. I answer all of my emails from the last 10 hours or so. During that time, it's quiet. I can think and I can get my thoughts out. So I return all my emails. I then do all of my accounting. I take a shower and I'm in the office by 9:30, 10:00 every day.

I usually leave the office at about 5:30 or 6:00 every night, or maybe a little earlier and maybe Kali, my assistant, and I will go and end the day and smoke a joint and she'll go off and do her things. I'll get home here at about 6:30 or so. Scott and I will have dinner together. Maybe catch a few movies or whatever else. And then I'm usually in bed at about 11:00, 11:30 every day.

Has working in the cannabis industry always been a goal for you? 

No, and it's funny because you're the second young person that's asked me, has this always been a goal? You have to remember, up until 2009 [when] I was 44 years old, the goal of selling weed would have made me a drug dealer, not an entrepreneur. See the difference?

Photo by Joe Mahoney

"Up until 2009 [when] I was 44 years old, the goal of selling weed would have made me a drug dealer, not an entrepreneur. See the difference?"

Yes! There is definitely a difference! 

And this is what's really inspiring, you may not even know what your career is yet because your career may not have even been invented yet. I did not know until 2009 that the possibility of this being a business would even be a thing. I wasn't really sure what it was going to be, but I didn't think it was going to be that.

What inspired you to join the market in the first place?

Because of my 25 years with three senators on speed dial, with a governor on speed dial, with Congress on speed dial, we felt relatively confident that we were going to be able to enter this industry without the fear of going to jail, which was the point of entering the industry. Because up until then, Black people had been going to jail. When we started in 2009, the goal was social justice. $260 worth of the street value of bad cannabis cost my brother 10 years of his life. He never saw an attorney, which, when he told me that I didn't understand until I saw When They See Us.

He [later] tested positive on his piss test and they immediately put an 18-year-old in a privatized prison, where for the next four and a half years, my brother picked cotton every day. He had to pick a hundred pounds of cotton a day in Texas to purchase his freedom. My brother became a slave. A whole bunch of people's brothers became a slave because that became an American-Corporate balance. My brother picked a hundred pounds of cotton every day for four years. How much does the cotton industry owe my family?

For almost seven years, we were the only ones in Colorado and that's a shame. And this is the racism that we've got to be able to fight. I've often said that my father's generation fought to be able to ride the bus, right? To get on the bus and sit where they wanted to on the bus. Our challenge is how do we own the bus? How do we own the bus line, right? So, it's one thing to decriminalize, which is great. We should not be going to jail for this. But now let's take it a step further.

What has your extensive professional career working with Presidents and Fortune 500 Companies taught you about the work you’re doing now?

Ironically, everything that I have done in my life up until this point has prepared me for this point. When you're going through your life and like, "Why am I here? Why am I doing this?" When I look back on it, everything that I have done has trained me for this.

After 25 years in politics, I know how to talk to US senators. I know how to talk to governors. Hell, I know how to talk to presidents, right? So everything that I have done in my life has prepared me for this one moment in time. Even my love of the plant, you know? I'm not just the business owner, I'm a client.

Courtesy of Wanda James

"After 25 years in politics, I know how to talk to US senators. I know how to talk to governors. Hell, I know how to talk to presidents, right? So everything that I have done in my life has prepared me for this one moment in time. Even my love of the plant, you know? I'm not just the business owner, I'm a client."

I love that! And I saw in a previous interview you said that at your house, there’s weed in the wine, food, and beer and I’ve never aligned with someone so closely in my life. In your own words, what are your views on medical and recreational cannabis usage? 

The only time that I didn't smoke was the five years that I was in the military because the penalty was too high for a military officer in the late 80s, early 90s. If you were caught with illegal drugs, you went directly to jail, period. No conversation, no nothing. You just went to jail. So I wasn't going to chance that.

If you go to The Officer's Club, you could get top-shelf alcohol for 75 cents a drink. If you could drink all night and get up in the morning and put on your uniform, you were doing it right. And during that time of my life, I mean that was probably the time that I felt the least like myself. I was in my twenties, so hangovers don't last long and you're able to deal with your day, but [you're] nowhere near as sharp as you could be, nowhere near as engaged as you could be and it was because of alcohol. So it's been interesting to me when I look at alcohol versus cannabis. Alcohol loses all the time in my book.

What is the biggest misconception you think people have about marijuana products?

I think that the biggest misconception about cannabis is that people want to put it in the drug column. For me, when I think of drugs, I think of something that your body doesn't necessarily want or doesn't want, may need but doesn't want. I think that cannabis is something that works with our bodies. It works in total alignment with our bodies.

I just don't see this as a negative at all. I run three businesses, I'm up at 4:30 every morning, my husband and I are in great shape; we run, we do all kinds of athletic things. Neither one of us have any "ailments" to speak of; we don't have high blood pressure, we don't have diabetes and I'm not saying that's because of cannabis, but I'm also not saying it's not because of cannabis.

What advice do you have for women like me who want to enter the cannabis industry but may be intimidated by the barriers to entry? 

Don't be intimidated, first and foremost. Take the word "intimidated" out of your vocabulary. And let me say, we all feel nervous sometimes. We all feel anxiety sometimes. Every time I go into a meeting, I feel nervous. I get that weird feeling in my stomach. I'm like, "Oh, here we go." But you know what though? That's life. That's not a negative feeling. That's a positive feeling. That's your adrenaline getting going. Adrenaline is getting released in your body so that your brain gets sharp.

We need to learn to love that feeling because that's the feeling of excitement and things happening. Yes, it's scary. Absolutely. It's scary because you know what? It might not work, but so what? So what? Because it might work.

"Every time I go into a meeting, I feel nervous. I get that weird feeling in my stomach. I'm like, "Oh, here we go." But you know what though? That's life. That's not a negative feeling. That's a positive feeling. That's your adrenaline getting going. Adrenaline is getting released in your body so that your brain gets sharp."

What footprint do you plan to leave on the cannabis industry when you retire? 

I want this industry to be the catalyst for ending slave labor in America. Because when we talk about mass incarceration, we are talking about [in cannabis-related arrests alone], 800,000 people a year arrested for simple possession before legalization started. A year. Not 800,000 people total; a year. So I want this industry to be equitable. I want it to shine a light on what racism has done to destroy the black and brown community.

And then I want to see cannabis be the means of fixing that issue. Okay. In other words, I want to see our families and our communities benefit long-term from cannabis in the exact same way that Kennedys benefited from Irish whiskey when it was illegal. I want to see America pay its debt. And it is a debt and they do owe us, and I think that cannabis, that this industry can be the vehicle in order to make that happen.

Make sure to stop by Simply Pure the next time you're in Colorado and keep up with Wanda's adventures on Instagram @WandaLJames!

*Some responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Featured image courtesy of Wanda James.

You may not know her by Elisabeth Ovesen – writer and host of the love, sex and relationships advice podcast Asking for a Friend. But you definitely know her other alter ego, Karrine Steffans, the New York Times best-selling author who lit up the literary and entertainment world when she released what she called a “tell some” memoir, Confessions of a Video Vixen.

Her 2005 barn-burning book gave an inside look at the seemingly glamorous world of being a video vixen in the ‘90s and early 2000s, and exposed the industry’s culture of abuse, intimidation, and misogyny years before the Me Too Movement hit the mainstream. Her follow-up books, The Vixen Diaries (2007) and The Vixen Manual: How To Find, Seduce And Keep The Man You Want (2009) all topped the New York Times best-seller list. After a long social media break, she's back. xoNecole caught up with Ovesen about the impact of her groundbreaking book, what life is like for her now, and why she was never “before her time”– everyone else was just late to the revolution.

xoNecole: Tell me about your new podcast Asking for a Friend with Elisabeth Ovesen and how that came about.

Elisabeth Ovesen: I have a friend who is over [at Blavity] and he just asked me if I wanted to do something with him. And that's just kinda how it happened. It wasn't like some big master plan. Somebody over there was like, “Hey, we need content. We want to do this podcast. Can you do it?” And I was like, “Sure.” And that's that. That was around the holidays and so we started working on it.

xoNecole: Your life and work seem incredibly different from when you first broke out on the scene. Can you talk a bit about the change in your career and how your life is now?

EO: Not that different. I mean my life is very different, of course, but my work isn't really that different. My life is different, of course, because I'm 43. My career started when I was in my 20s, so we're looking at almost 20 years since the beginning of my career. So, naturally life has changed a lot since then.

I don’t think my career has changed a whole lot – not as far as my writing is concerned, and my stream of consciousness with my writing, and my concerns and the subject matter hasn’t changed much. I've always written about interpersonal relationships, sexual shame, male ego fragility, respectability politics – things like that. I always put myself in the center of that to make those points, which I think were greatly missed when I first started writing. I think that society has changed quite a bit. People are more aware. People tell me a lot that I have always been “before my time.” I was writing about things before other people were talking about that; I was concerned about things before my generation seemed to be concerned about things. I wasn't “before my time.” I think it just seems that way to people who are late to the revolution, you know what I mean?

I retired from publishing in 2015, which was always the plan to do 10 years and retire. I was retired from my pen name and just from the business in general in 2015, I could focus on my business, my education and other things, my family. I came back to writing in 2020 over at Medium. The same friend that got me into the podcast, actually as the vice president of content over at Medium and was like, “Hey, we need some content.” I guess I’m his go-to content creator.

xoNecole: Can you expound on why you went back to your birth name versus your stage name?

EO: No, it was nothing to expound upon. I mean, writers have pen names. That’s like asking Diddy, why did he go by Sean? I didn't go back. I've always used that. Nobody was paying attention. I've never not been myself. Karrine Steffans wrote a certain kind of book for a certain kind of audience. She was invented for the urban audience, particularly. She was never meant to live more than 10 years. I have other pen names as well. I write under several names. So, the other ones are just nobody's business right now. Different pen names write different things. And Elisabeth isn’t my real name either. So you'll never know who I really am and you’ll never know what my real name is, because part of being a writer is, for me at least, keeping some sort of anonymity. Anything I do in entertainment is going to amass quite a bit because who I am as a person in my private life isn't the same a lot of times as who I am publicly.

xoNecole: I want to go back to when you published Confessions of a Video Vixen. We are now in this time where people are reevaluating how the media mistreated women in the spotlight in the 2000s, namely women like Britney Spears. So I’d be interested to hear how you feel about that period of your life and how you were treated by the media?

EO: What I said earlier. I think that much of society has evolved quite a bit. When you look back at that time, it was actually shocking how old-fashioned the thinking still was. How women were still treated and how they're still treated now. I mean, it hasn't changed completely. I think that especially for the audience, I think it was shocking for them to see a woman – a woman of color – not be sexually ashamed.

I hate being like other people. I don't want to do what anyone else is doing. I can't conform. I will not conform. I think in 2005 when Confessions was published, that attitude, especially about sex, was very upsetting. Number one, it was upsetting to the men, especially within urban and hip-hop culture, which is built on misogyny and thrives off of it to this day. And the women who protect these men, I think, you know, addressing a demographic that is rooted in trauma that is rooted in sexual shame, trauma, slavery of all kinds, including slavery of the mind – I think it triggered a lot of people to see a Black woman be free in this way.

I think it said a lot about the people who were upset by it. And then there were some in “crossover media,” a lot of white folks were upset too, not gonna lie. But to see it from Black women – Tyra Banks was really upset [when she interviewed me about Confessions in 2005]. Oprah wasn't mad [when she interviewed me]. As long as Oprah wasn’t mad, I was good. I didn't care what anybody else had to say. Oprah was amazing. So, watching Black women defend men, and Black women who had a platform, defend the sexual blackmailing of men: “If you don't do this with me, you won't get this job”; “If you don't do this in my trailer, you're going to have to leave the set”– these are things that I dealt with.

I just happened to be the kind of woman who, because I was a single mother raising my child all by myself and never got any help at all – which I still don't. Like, I'm 24 in college – not a cheap college either – one of the best colleges in the country, and I'm still taking care of him all by myself as a 21-year-old, 20-year-old, young, single mother with no family and no support – I wasn’t about to say no to something that could help me feed my son for a month or two or three.

xoNecole: We are in this post-Me Too climate where women in Hollywood have come forward to talk about the powerful men who have abused them. In the music industry in particular, it seems nearly impossible for any substantive change or movement to take place within music. It's only now after three decades of allegations that R. Kelly has finally been convicted and other men like Russell Simmons continue to roam free despite the multiple allegations against him. Why do you think it's hard for the music industry to face its reckoning?

EO: That's not the music industry, that's urban music. That’s just Black folks who make music and nobody cares about that. That's the thing; nobody cares...Nobody cares. It's not the music industry. It's just an "urban" thing. And when I say "urban," I say that in quotations. Literally, it’s a Black thing, where nobody gives a shit what Black people do to Black people. And Russell didn't go on unchecked, he just had enough money to keep it quiet. But you know, anytime you're dealing with Black women being disrespected, especially by Black men, nobody gives a shit.

And Black people don't police themselves so it doesn't matter. Why should anybody care? And Black women don't care. They'll buy an R. Kelly album right now. They’ll stream that shit right now. They don’t care. So, nobody cares. Nobody cares. And if you're not going to police yourself, then nobody's ever going to care.

xoNecole: Do you have any regrets about anything you wrote or perhaps something you may have omitted?

EO: Absolutely not. No. There's nothing that I wish I would've gone back and said to myself, no. I don’t think at 20-something years old, I'm supposed to understand every little thing. I don't think the 20-something-year-old woman is supposed to understand the world and know exactly what she's doing. I think that one of my biggest regrets, which isn't my regret, but a regret, is that I didn't have better parents. Because a 20-something only knows what she knows based on what she’s seen and what she’s been taught and what she’s told. I had shitty parents and a horrible family. Just terrible. These people had no business having children. None of them. And a lot of our families are like that. And we may pass down those familial curses.

*This interview has been edited and condensed

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Feature image courtesy of Elisabeth Ovesen

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