In business, there will always be struggles, but the best entrepreneurs stay the course. In the cannabis industry staying the course means being like water and being able to conform to the fast-growing industry where the rules are constantly changing.
Wanda James, founder, and CEO of Simply Pure Dispensary knows firsthand what it takes to survive the cannabis industry. Along with her husband Scott Durrah, they became the first African Americans, legally licensed in America, to own a dispensary, a cultivation facility, and an edible company.
The sharp-witted, goal-oriented, entrepreneur has been able to carve out a unique niche in an industry dominated by dollars and white faces.
When you think of Colorado, you think of weed. It was one of the earlier states to legalize recreational use. But still, in Denver, the state’s largest city, there are only three Black-owned dispensaries, one of which is Simply Pure. For Wanda James, the journey to owning and operating her own dispensary hasn’t been easy, but well worth it as she’s been the epitome of success.
She was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in Cannabis by High Times magazine in 2018, one of the 2016 Cannabis Business Executive (CBE) 50 Most Important Women in the Cannabis Industry, and has been featured in numerous television shows.
But with all the accolades, James says she doesn’t do it to get rich. Instead, she’d rather enrich lives with creative cannabis products tailored specifically for you as an individual.
I had the unique opportunity to sit down with CEO, Wanda James and pick her brain about the dispensary, the cannabis game, and what it takes to be successful in the industry. Check out the interview below.
Why be a business owner? Why is that important to you?
I think it’s like everything else in the world, right? It really depends on how you’re wired. And I don’t think that there is any one right answer or any one wrong answer. I have friends that have had phenomenal careers in corporate America. I’ve had friends that have had phenomenal careers working for nonprofits or in government. And I think you just kind of find what part of the world or what part of your journey experience you want to have. And for me, I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of all of it. Being a military officer, being in corporate America, owning restaurants, being in this new industry. And what I find as an entrepreneur is there is a joy in working for yourself.
What made you pick the cannabis industry?
So cannabis chose me. This is my fifth career. And the reason that we’re in it is because politics led me to this. So after working for Barack Obama and then working for Congressman Jared Polis, who became Governor Jared Polis of Colorado, the idea that Colorado was going to be the first to legalize and having the experience of having my brother be a slave because of cannabis and I do mean slave. My brother got a 10-year sentence and in that 10 years, he spent four years picking cotton in a Texas maximum security prison or medium security prison. And this was disgusting to me to find out that the state of Texas in these grand United States would sentence a black child for $160 worth of street weed to pick cotton.
I mean, that was demoralizing and dehumanizing, and it was done to make sure that recidivism for him happened, and they were able to keep him as a slave for the rest of his life. Luckily for him, Colorado legalized. I was able to bring him out here from Texas to Colorado the minute he got off of probation, parole, etc., and was able to start a new life and a new career without the fear of being a slave. So that’s why I’m involved in cannabis. And when we started 13 years ago, it wasn’t about money. Nobody was making money back then. You were just happy not to go to prison for telling the United States government that you sold 25 pounds of weed that day.
We did this to make a difference, and along the way, hopefully, we’ll make a couple of nickels, so we’ll see what happens.
That sounds amazing. It seems like it was passionate to you because it was so family oriented.
I’m a connoisseur. I’ve been a connoisseur for most of my life, and I have felt that my choices of enjoying cannabis over alcohol probably saved me from a lot of issues in college and perhaps in the military. We’re seeing rape up 13% in the military right now. I can promise that all has to do somehow or another, probably mostly with alcohol without even looking at what the files were. So being a cannabis connoisseur, you don’t stay at parties too long after where everybody is gone, you don’t get out of your mind or lose consciousness. So I think cannabis has been a very positive thing for me my whole life.
What is Simply Pure? Talk to us about the dispensary.
So, simply pure started off in Colorado as an edible company. I’m not 100% sure, but I believe we’re the first edible company to actually use a commercial kitchen and hire all chefs that worked on our products. And that product line became simply pure. It was vegan, gluten-free, and all organic words that you can’t use anymore on packaging in cannabis spaces. And we produce food. My husband is a chef. He’s owned lots of restaurants. He won Bong Appetite. He’s been on CBS Mornings for the holiday shows. So cooking is what he loves to do. And the chefs that he brought together all wanted to create food because this was all under medical marijuana for people that actually had medicinal issues. So simply pure was in 450 dispensaries.
We had things like marinara, green chili sauce, apple butter, peanut butter, and things you could actually make and use in recipes. When that no longer works for us, we took the name simply pure, and it morphed into being our second dispensary. That dispensary is still alive and well and it’s been doing phenomenal things. And it’s right on this amazing corner here in Denver and LoHi with lots of traffic and it’s absolutely my happy place in the world.
That sounds great. We’re going to stay on that, but I did want to ask you a question because something that you said was intriguing. You said that you had to kind of take a turn from your business and shift in another direction. Some other business owners I have spoken with also talked about something very similar. What did you learn from that and how did that help you propel forward as a business owner?
In the last 13 years, I’ve got an MBA and a law degree out of running cannabis companies. I mean, I’m pretty sure I could pass the bar at this point. I really mean that. The thing about being successful in cannabis, let me be clear, most people are not successful in cannabis. Along this path of 13 years, I’ve seen well-funded athletes, the sons of rich men with prominent last names, celebrities, I mean, the list of failures in this industry and people who went down hard, and even some iconic names in cannabis came out to Colorado and failed miserably.
This game is really about being like water because regulations are going to change. Like I said with edibles before we could produce food, we had marinara sauce, for instance. Now we can’t do a jar of marinara sauce that’s 100 mg because it has to be measured out at exactly ten milligrams per person, which you can’t do with spaghetti sauce. It has to have a shelf life of over a year. So there are all of these rules and regulations that here you are trucking along, you’ve got food out there, 450 dispensaries, you’re doing well, and all of a sudden the regulations change. Are you prepared to be like water and shift into new product lines or a new way of selling or different things that are coming out?
This is why the team you have in place is the most important thing any entrepreneur can have because one person can’t keep their eye on all of the things that have to happen to stay successful.
What would you say some misconceptions are about owning a dispensary and being in the cannabis industry?
That you’re going to be a billionaire by December!
I had a feeling that you were going to say money. Some people just think they can get into the cannabis industry and just become millionaires.
It is heartbreaking to me. I’m about to upset a whole bunch of people and probably get a whole bunch of negative emails. But guess what? We all aren’t going to own a dispensary. We all aren’t going to own a cultivation facility, and we all aren’t going to make products. This is the most difficult industry to stay afloat in. I’ve been an entrepreneur for years before this and worked in corporate America for years before this. I understand marketing, HR, finance, your EBITDA, and all the different things that you’ve got to deal with. Coming into this industry thinking that because grandma makes this great bundt cake and you’re going to infuse this bundt cake, and everybody in the neighborhood loves your infused bundt cake, therefore you’re going to make a billion.
There is so much between grandma’s recipe and your infused bundt cake, putting it in a dispensary and getting it sold to the public. Taxation in this industry is ridiculous. We’re taxed under something called the 280 E tax penalty, which is the same tax penalty that Pablo Escobar pays taxes under. And I’m happy to go through that, but that’s a whole podcast in itself. But basically, the government takes 40% to 60% of your income, which is effectively all of your profits. So, therefore those that are licensed currently in cannabis right now are not making money if you are actually paying your taxes. And if you are not paying your taxes, you will be shut down. We just had a company here in Colorado shut down that was making $35 million a year, and they were shut down for not paying their taxes.
What advice would you give someone trying to get into the industry?
I know this is heartbreaking. It really is. And it breaks my heart when I hear people talking about, oh, I got a dispensary license. We’re going to have generational wealth. No, you’re not. And here’s the other sad thing about one license as well, too. If you are one-licensed, it is going to be so difficult for you, under the 280 tax penalty, as long as this is federally illegal, for you to make the kind of money that creates generational wealth. Yes. If your husband, your sister, your mom, and everybody works in the dispensary and you each take a modest salary, the family will do okay. But when I say modest, I mean modest. I’m talking about maybe $100,000, maybe less. I mean, not everybody is getting six figures, right? And that’s with one dispensary. Now, yes, there are exceptions.
There is Planet 13 in Las Vegas. That is one dispensary that makes a bunch of money, right? But unless you have a large dispensary like that, or you’re in a place where there is lots of tourism and just mega exposure, most dispensaries aren’t going to do what people think that they’re going to do. And like I said, the government is going to take 40% to 60% off the top.
So correct me if I’m wrong, but you have three licenses?
Now, the other thing, too, we can talk about changing. We just sold our cultivation facility. Why would you sell a cultivation facility? Because in Colorado, the price of cannabis has gone from $4,000 a pound, top shelf maybe four or five years ago, to now between $900 and $1100 a pound top shelf cannabis. The rest of the cannabis is coming in between $400 and $500. We used to sell trim for $400 and $500. If you only have a small growth facility and you’re not able to scale that growth facility, it was cheaper to buy cannabis than it was to grow it on your own. So this is why I’m saying you’ve got to be like water and get different things that are happening. So we started licensing the name Simply Pure.
And so now we have our Dispensary here, our flagship here in Colorado, and we have two licensees in New Jersey, and potentially four more coming on board.
So let’s talk about your dispensary. What are some of your top-selling products?
This is what I love about our dispensary. So we focus on training. Our budologists, they’re not tenders, they’re budologist because it takes them a long time to get on our floor, and then they have to take a test every month to remain on the floor. So their knowledge of products, of dosing, of everything is just amazing. So we do about a third, a third, a third. A third concentrate, a third flower, and a third edible. It shifts slightly each month, but when you break it down to individual things, people really love pre-rolls because they’re easy to go out and smoke with. People love gummies. I could literally not sell any other edible but gummies, and we would do just fine.
I think gummies are like 70% of the edible sales, and it’s summertime, so people love gummies in the summertime because not unlike chocolate, they won’t melt on you. We can’t keep the infused sex lube on the shelves. I like that one. So you really enjoy that product. But, I mean, I think that’s one of those fun products that people don’t think about when they think about cannabis. There are so many things in our dispensary, like CBD and THC bath bombs. There’s so much. It’s not just about the high potency concentrates or the root beer float drinks that you can buy and stuff like that.
The bath bomb is definitely intriguing!
They’re so relaxing. I mean, there’s nothing like soaking in the bath with some CBD and THC. You got to try that.
This is the beauty of cannabis. Tell me what it is when you come into our store that you enjoy and we can tailor an experience for what it is that you’re looking for. From the folks that are like, I’ve never tried cannabis, to folks that are like last time I tried cannabis, I was at the Bob Marley concert in 1972 in Jamaica. To the folks that are 23 years old, and they’re all going snowmobiling up in Vail this weekend, we cover the gamut, and it’s just really a fascinating business to be in.
So you call yourself a politician. What makes you identify as a politician? You’ve got a business that you’re really trying to see grow, so why identify as a politician?
We go ’cause’ 100% and I mean, don’t get me wrong, even my investors sometimes are like, yeah, you probably shouldn’t have picked a fight with the mayor. And on 4/20 they dug a hole out in front of our dispensary so nobody can park there. I was like, oh man. But, I will never forget why we’re in this industry. Right? I’m sure everybody around me wishes I was more concerned with the bottom line and the dollar. And I am. I’m a good business person.
I don’t believe in doing things for free, but we will always come down on the side of right and cause over more profit because I believe that profit will come. I do. We do a great job. Our customer service is top-notch. Our products are top-notch. We as a company operate top-notch.
So we’re going to make money but we’re going to take all of what we do and we’re going to use our voice and our unique position in this industry to scream from the top of our lungs what’s wrong with society, with government, with racism, with this war on drugs and how that has affected people of color and communities of color. So yeah, we’re coming correct with all of that. I’m not worried about money. We’ll make money.
So both you and your husband served in the military. I definitely wanted to touch on that.
How did that experience make you a better business owner?
You know what, leadership. The military has taught me time and time again in my business world, in my entrepreneurial world, and even in my personal life, leadership has come first and foremost. There hasn’t been a time in my life where I have not been in a leadership position since I was 21 years old. And having been trained on that by some of the best folks in understanding the ins and the outs of the military, the chain of command, and more importantly, taking the word ‘can’t’ out of your vocabulary. As a young military officer and as a black woman, I was like a unicorn. To be honest with you, especially in the Navy, there were not many of us at all.
Do you have a favorite saying or mantra? If so why is it important to you?
There are just so many that I use, especially when I speak. Angela Davis, “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.” That’s a big one for me.
Barack Obama has an amazing couple of quotes on black excellence, saying that sometimes we as black people don’t expect excellence from each other. And I got to tell you, I expect excellence from my brothers and sisters.