As marijuana laws in America continue to relax, the historical and current impact on Blacks is being looked at and the new BET documentary Smoke: Marijuana + Black America analyzes the phenomenon from several perspectives. One of them is from the perspective of those who choose to enter the burgeoning cannabis business.
In a Zoom chat with Erik Parker, the documentary’s director, Colorado’s first African American marijuana dispensary owner, Wanda James, says witnessing how mass incarceration of as many 800,000 Black people was used to respond to simple marijuana possession motivated her.
“This created the slave labor force that America has always had and when your race is targeted to be slave labor for Fortune 500 companies and you start to understand the combination of being arrested for simple possession and then spending usually about a decade of your life as a slave, i.e., in a privatized prison system, it became very concerning to us,” explained James.
A former naval officer and one-time political campaign manager, she owns the Simply Pure dispensary with her husband Scott Durrah in Denver. The couple got into the marijuana legalization movement after her brother was arrested for possession of only 4.5 ounces of the plant and given a 10-year sentence.
“We wanted to put a Black face on this movement and we wanted to be able to talk openly about this and we knew that they couldn’t make criminals out of me and my husband a decade ago,” she said. “People now talk about making money. When we started this, it was our dream not to be arrested and not to go to jail because that was real back then. So that’s what got us started in opening up the first dispensary operation.”
James says she and her husband are “serial entrepreneurs,” having run multiple businesses, but the risk they faced in opening up a marijuana business was serious and that was brought home when they were raided in 2009 by law enforcement, despite being a legitimately legal dispensary.
“When you’re Black and you’re in anything, choose your poison, you are going to be scrutinized more than anybody else,” said James, who emphasized that she runs her businesses by the book. But when she found out that officers had come to her grow facility in riot gear and with hazmat material, bursting windows, it made her worried enough to get on the phone with several lawyers and even legislators discussing their options.
“Being outspoken about this from day one, we honestly didn’t know what was coming next,” she said. It was terrifying.”
With experiences like that behind her, she says it is notable that Black people are largely absent from the cannabis businesses today and could be missing an economic opportunity and a chance to protect Blacks from the scrutiny around marijuana that has burdened the community. But there are barriers to entry that could be holding people back.
“When you get past the idea of being Rosa Parks and getting the ability to sit on the bus, then the next piece is well, how do we own the bus?” said James. Finance itself is a hindrance to many people becoming involved in the legalized marijuana trade. “No matter how talented your team is, you’ve got to find that money through private equity, which usually means you sitting in front of a 30-year-old white guy explaining why your business is a good thing, and that becomes difficult for so many different reasons.”
Smoke: Marijuana + Black America premieres Wednesday, November 18 at 10 pm ET on BET.