Power Players

Power Players: Simply Pure CEO Wanda James

By Alex Halperin Aug 30, 2020
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Alex Halperin is the founder, editor and publisher of WeedWeek. Before he started covering marijuana legalization in 2014 he reported on topics such as fracking, health care, technology a...
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Alex Halperin is the founder, editor and publisher of WeedWeek. Before he started covering marijuana legalization in 2014 he reported on topics such as fracking, health care, technology and finance. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Slate, Fast Company, Quartz, the Washington Post, Mother Jones, The New Yorker and many other publications. His first book, The Cannabis Dictionary, was published in March. He lives in Los Angeles.
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Since 2010, when she founded Simply Pure in Denver, Wanda James has been among the most prominent Black cannabis executives in the U.S. In this week’s Power Players interview she discusses the state of equity in Colorado, competing with big companies and the value of speaking up on political issues.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

“Colorado doesn’t have an equity program”

WeedWeek: Tell us about your business and what the pandemic’s been like for you?

Wanda James: Simply Pure is my little happy place on the planet. It’s on a fantastic corner in Denver’s LoHi neighborhood and we’re surrounded by ice cream stores and restaurants and all types of retail and lots of people walking around. 

It was crazy the first few months because there was nobody out there, it was real silent. But the one thing that we found were people in the neighborhood and longterm customers really appreciated having dispensaries open. I hate the phrase coping mechanism, but cannabis has a way of making people feel better through times that are stressful.

WW: What do you think of Colorado’s equity program and can you see any progress from it? It’s pretty new.

WJ: Colorado doesn’t have an equity program, Colorado adopted definitions for what an equity applicant would look like. The program that has been put forth, that they’re calling an equity program, the accelerator program, requires that an applicant finds a host to train them, to work with them, to develop their IP, etc. 

That’s not equity at all. It’s a fine program if people want to partner and learn and train, but it’s not an equity partnership. An equity partnership means that licensing priority is given to people who are harmed by the drug war. It means that said license holders are guaranteed some form of funding because giving somebody a license with no funding is not an equity program.

Since we can’t go to a bank, we are now relying on minority applicants to go to family and friends, to fund a cannabis business, or give away large sums of their business to white organizations or large lenders. So, I fail to see where the equity program has happened in Colorado yet. 

However, that being said, the fact that we got a definition in place, I’ve been assured, that the state will take on a robust equity program to fund minority businesses through our [COVID] recovery period.

WW: What’s the timeframe for that?

WJ: I would hope that it’s 2021. Like all other States, Colorado is facing tremendous budget deficits. However, what we are seeing is that in every recovery program all across the United States, it’s time to talk about how we are going to recover Black businesses, the Black neighborhoods, inner cities. We have been the ones most hit, as usual, by this pandemic. Forty-one percent of [all, not just cannabis] small, Black-owned businesses have now failed. It’s time for America to start talking about who to bail out.

It’s time for America to look at what we are going to be calling the great Black bailout. We’re tired of racism. We’ve seen Black athletes today decide no longer to play until racism is addressed. People are fed up.  It’s absurd for the cannabis industry and people involved in cannabis to think that this is going to continue to be a majority white, majority male-owned industry and have that be okay.

“Americans are making up their minds”

WW: Last week I talked to Justin Dye the CEO of Schwazze. He’s a former supermarket executive pursuing an aggressive strategy in Colorado. Then this week, Columbia Care, a multi-state operator said it would close it’s deal to acquire The Green Solution, one of Colorado’s biggest cannabis companies. What does this mean for smaller businesses in the state, including minority-owned businesses. How are big players going to affect their chances?

WJ: Two things: We saw the same thing happen in tech, right? Big companies gobble up little companies. That’s always going to happen. What makes cannabis so different is that tech was not built on the backs of Black and brown people going to jail. Tech was not built on Bill Gates and Steve Wosniak getting thrown into prison for having the nerve to build a computer in their garage and then getting banned from the industry. That in essence is what happened in cannabis, right?

Here in Colorado they prevented anybody that had a nonviolent felony conviction with drugs from participating with first-mover status back in 2009, which blocked them from having big grows or dispensaries.

So, yep, these large companies are coming in. But you know what the biggest uptick has been in my business over the last three months, last two months? It has been people looking for Black-owned businesses, people wanting to support small business owners. 

It’s kind of as if COVID and the racist underbelly that we have been seeing come forth here in America is now promoting people to actually be anti-racist and to actually think about what it is that we’re supporting with our dollars. So Columbia Care will be just fine, Green Solution will be just fine, Coca-Cola will be just fine. All of those companies will continue to grow. However, I do believe that we will start to see more support given to small minority-owned companies, women-owned and vet-owned companies.

WW: Have you heard of any efforts to promote these ideas, or is it just people coming to these conclusions on their own?

WJ: It’s kind of an odd situation that we’re seeing ourselves in. COVID hit. It shut down America entirely. It then paid Americans to stay home, and then all of a sudden while Americans were staying home with not a lot to do, we started to see racism happen.

We saw George Floyd happen. We saw the Harvard birdwatcher in New York city happen. We saw, most recently the gentleman shot seven times in his back. We saw Botham Jean happen, this young man being shot in his apartment while watching TV. And every single time we saw the cops lie. Lie. Lie. Lie. We watched them do that, and then all of a sudden America erupted because we had time.

What an amazing confluence of events to have happened in America, to finally, finally bring to the forefront what has been happening in this country, what my grandfather said has happened to him, what my father has talked about, what my older brothers say have happened to them.

Now all of a sudden, Americans are looking at this and they’re saying, “Yeah, this is wrong.” And I think that we are starting to see support happen organically. And as you said, Americans are making up their minds for themselves about what they want to support with their money.

Pot and Politics

WW: On your social feeds you describe yourself as talking about pot and politics. There’s a divide in the industry between some brands that might be described as, performatively woke, and then others that really try and veer away from political issues or don’t really address political issues. Do you have any comment on that?

WJ: I don’t care what people do and don’t do with their business. I’m the CEO of my business, the founder of my business, I do what I believe is correct. There are businesses that have performed well by being outspoken on racism, on Black Lives Matter, on police misconduct. I look at companies like Nike, made a billion dollars on the fact that they’ve stood by Kap. I look at companies like Ben and Jerry’s; the whole basis of their advertising is based in social justice. They’ve actually come out and said, “Defund the police.”

So people look when you can bring a quality product to the table, and then you address what is on people’s minds and you don’t veer away from what is important. That becomes a real interesting conversation. Nike sales popped up when they say that they supported Black Lives Matter.

I would just like to say that we are very proud of our stance, of standing for racial justice, for gender justice, for cannabis use, for ending mass incarceration, for ending police misconduct. Yeah, we proudly, proudly, proudly dance on the right side of history with every one of those issues.

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Alex Halperin
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