By Maria Gabriela Alvarez
The Women Grow Leadership Summit: a liberating and empowering forum established by the largest national network for women entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry. Held in Washington, D.C. for the first time after years in the Southwest and West Coast, it was clear the Divine Feminine spirit harnessed the room. A group of strong women all leaving their mark in their industry and sharing their inner power with each other; a collaborative exchange. Surrounded by this energy, Honey Pot sat down to speak with Simply Pure founder and keynote speaker Wanda James–the truth is that she has learned to listen to the universe.
As the first black dispensary owner in the United States, James is a legendary figure in cannabis (one recently inducted into Marijuana Business Daily’s Hall of Fame for her pioneering advocacy, entrepreneurship, and commitment to breaking stigmas across all levels of the space). Her path has been marked by a specific mix of the spiritual and pragmatic realism (both necessary in harnessing your energy, enacting change, and receiving results). A former Navy lieutenant with a past corporate career, James’s connection with the spiritual realm comes as a surprise. Further mystifying at first glance: the role of her spiritual connection in her tangible success as an entrepreneur and activist.
Our conversation reveals the core of James’ evolution in the cannabis space, bridging vast disparities in an industry that has largely decided to ignore them. For James, speaking up is the starting point for this enormous build. Speaking up is, in fact, her superpower, the means by which she has harnessed her inner strength and shared it with the world. However, James engages not in the practice of simply raising her voice, but also in saying what needs to be said; what the universe begs us to say.
“Have you ever had those times where there’s a part of you that says–you have a voice inside of your head that says–“just say it?” she begins. “I don’t know what it may be, but something… on a topic that might be controversial or it might not be well-[vetted], but you keep getting this feeling inside of you that says , ‘Do it, say it’.”
It is that nudge by the universe, so often ignored for social propriety, that the entrepreneur explains will become the spark for a greater movement of recognition, mutual support, and change. One example of this being her transparency towards the economic realities of small business owners in the industry faced against giant hedge-fund backed companies. A larger example: her work towards legalizing and decriminalizing weed, mainly focusing on reducing the racial disparity in the industry.
Social justice has always been Wanda James’s guiding force and one of the main reasons she chose to break into the industry. The obvious issue at hand is the incredibly pervasive racial inequity in the industry and the lack of federal laws and regulations to rid it of this institutionalized imbalance found particularly in law enforcement practices. As reported by the Washington Post in 2013, in some states black men are eight times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than white men. James’s business Simply Pure is more than a dispensary that promotes the benefits of this miracle plant; it is a force for change in an emerging industry now being overrun by large corporations focused on the bottom line.
As a businesswoman, Wanda James treads with a grounded realism that reveals the path for change from the universe. “I’m not surprised that the rich white guys aren’t thinking about it. I wish that they would, but I do understand human nature and if it doesn’t affect you, you don’t think about it.”
The problem is not the capitalistic focus on an expanding market, but the effects this focus brings to the cannabis industry. The problem lies, as James explains, in the fact that “this industry has been built on the backs of black and brown people going to prison for the last hundred years; it’s been built on the backs of negative marketing that has allowed for the destruction of black and brown and poor communities; it’s allowed law enforcement to go into your home and tear it apart, it’s allowed law enforcement to arrest you in your home or kill you.”
This situation, however, also shows us one of the solutions to these problems: a change in policy. For James, the necessary change in policy is most easily found in licensing and she proposes a specific amount of licenses only be granted by states to companies that can prove 51% minority, women, or veteran-owned spaces in their C-suite, middle management, or board of directors. “We need to ensure that no state is giving all of its licenses to hedge fund-backed companies that have 48 licenses or 102 licenses….” But there’s an obstacle to overcome here, she points out: “As long as it doesn’t cost them any real money, then there’s no real reason for them to diversify and there’s no way to force a company that’s making billions of dollars to diversify unless we hit them at the licensing level.”
The policy change in licensing lies in the power of elected officials and the ability of supporters of decriminalization and social justice to make themselves heard, which according to James is actually the biggest challenge of all. “The naysayers call the senators, the naysayers call the council people, the naysayers probably call the president. We don’t do that, the people that are being healed from this plant….We need to be a more vocal majority.” A continuum in the practice of saying what the universe is begging you to say.
For Wanda James, this is also a personal statement of intent: “I hope to continue to be a voice in this industry, to always help find women the positions that they need to have to continue to grow in this industry. I hope to blow the doors off of allowing people of color to be a part of this industry, especially those who have done time for non-violent drug offenses because their lives have been destroyed for something I do every day.”
It is through her voice that Wanda James has and will continue to emerge as an innovator, moving it forward day by day by saying not what she’s supposed to, but what her innermost voice needs her to speak aloud and so many others to hear.
Maria Gabriela Alvarez is a recent graduate of Barnard College of Columbia University, where she earned her B.A. in Art History.