By Brad Marshland
When Wanda James’ brother Rick was 19, he was arrested for possession of 4.5 ounces of marijuana – and sentenced to 10 years in prison. According to Wanda, the Texas prison system used him as slave labor, compelling him to pick cotton in order to buy his freedom, while the profits of his work went to corporate interests.
“You have to ask yourself, why would the country do that,” says James, “and what kind of mental anguish is that to take a young black man and put him in the position of being a slave?”
Since then, Wanda and her husband, Scott Durrah, have been on a mission to reframe the conversation by capitalizing on the same drug that put her brother away. In 2009, they became the first African-Americans in Colorado to be licensed to operate a medical marijuana dispensary.
“At the time, over 800,000 people a year were being arrested for simple cannabis possession,” James says, “and Scott and I wanted to talk about what was happening, how people were being targeted, and how people that looked like us were generally being targeted.”
A former lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, James worked as a corporate executive and as a political consultant, and served on Barack Obama’s National Finance Committee in 2008. After Obama’s election, James says she and her husband wanted to put a different face on the cannabis industry. “We wanted to stand up, and we knew they couldn’t make criminals out of us.”
For his part, Scott Durrah leveraged decades of experience as a chef and restaurateur to help Wanda James launch Simply Pure as a medicinal edibles company in 2010. “We knew there was another step on top of the social justice part of it that we could really bring to this industry,” says Durrah, who expresses joy at being able to help people with terminal cancer, epilepsy, and multiple sclerosis.
Wanda and Scott have been together for nearly 25 years. And while they used to drink together, Wanda argues that the effect of cannabis on relationships is “1,000 times better than anybody dealing with alcohol or the fog of prescription drugs” and rails against the hypocrisy in cultural acceptance of alcohol compared with the vilification of marijuana. “If Scott and I were Ernest and Julio Gallo, there is not one person that would ever think it was strange that we had a glass of wine together every night.”
The couple lives in a beautiful house originally built by William Coors in 1890. What started with a beer family in the 19th century is now in the hands of a cannabis family in the 21st. Perhaps that, more than anything else, demonstrates the growing equivalency of marijuana and alcohol.
Wanda sees the trend toward legalization of marijuana in states like Colorado as a great vindication of the injustice done to her brother and others like him. But that’s just the first step. “First, stop being arrested for it. Then, learn to be entrepreneurs from it.”
Read more from the Yahoo Weed & the American Family series:
- Americans families defending pot as never before, Yahoo News/Marist Poll finds
- How Republicans and Democrats in Congress are joining forces to defeat Sessions’ war on weed
- Cannabis advocate Melissa Etheridge: ‘I’d much rather have a smoke with my grown kids than a drink’
- These mothers of suicides don’t think marijuana is harmless
- ‘Cannabis has made me a better parent’: One mom’s confession
- Photos: Small pot farms in Northern California thrive amid fears of Big Business
- Why 4/20 became a pot smoker’s holiday