Colorado Tourism Now Has a Pro-Marijuana Influence

Wanda James has owned several cannabis businesses over the past decade.EXPAND
Wanda James has owned several cannabis businesses over the past decade.
Courtesy of Wanda James
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Officially, Colorado hasn't been very hospitable to tourists coming here to partake in the state's legal pot industry, with zero state-licensed consumption areas since recreational dispensaries first opened in 2014. But visiting cannabis users now have a powerful ally with the ear of Governor Jared Polis.

Denver dispensary owner and cannabis activist Wanda James was appointed to the Colorado Tourism Office board of directors on August 5. James, who helped with Polis's gubernatorial campaign and managed previous campaigns for his congressional seat, is set on creating easily accessible areas where cannabis users can consume socially, and also promoting Colorado's still-rare industry outside of state lines.

While a new Colorado law will create a licensing system for social consumption businesses in 2020, local municipalities will be allowed to opt out of allowing those businesses. Meanwhile, an update to the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act will ban both smoking and vaping at hotels and public lodging, meaning the small number of Colorado hotels currently allowing cannabis use will have to either apply for a new social consumption license or stop allowing it.

"We do around 65 to 70 percent of our business with tourists in our dispensary. Social consumption, equity — these are things we've been talking about for years," James says of Simply Pure, the dispensary she owns with her husband, Scott Durrah. "What we're looking at now, from my perspective, is how do we include tourism in the cannabis and hemp conversation?"

So far, James has only met with the Polis administration a few times to discuss her new position, but she's not shying away from her ideals. A longtime activist for cannabis legalization as a pathway to promote social equity, she and her husband were the first black couple to own a dispensary in Colorado, and they've owned several other businesses as well, including multiple restaurants and a former edibles brand.

"I've owned and operated restaurants and cannabis businesses, and both of those are heavily focused on hospitality and serving tourists," she explains. "Colorado is booming, The eye of the world is on us. We're listed as a top place to live in the U.S. over and over again for many different reasons. ... So how do we promote what Colorado, cannabis and hemp have done outside of state lines?"

Part of that promotion could include finally recognizing cannabis as a tourism opportunity. The Colorado Tourism Office's website doesn't include legal cannabis on the list of activities to find in Colorado, despite listing brewing, wines and wineries, casinos and gaming, and even agritourism.

James is also the founder of Cannabis Global Initiative, a communications firm that pushes legal cannabis reform in out-of-state and international markets; through CGI, she's worked with politicians in Jamaica and other Caribbean nations toward legalization in their countries.

Here at home, she hopes tourism and cannabis hospitality can help push social equity further in both industry and criminal justice.

"It's important to create social consumption clubs and spaces for these people to go to, because unfortunately, most of the people cited for social consumption are people of color," she says. According to a New York Times report in June, African-Americans are still arrested on marijuana charges at a higher rate than whites in Colorado.

James was selected for the role after Andres Gil resigned, according to the governor's office. Her term will run through June 1, 2020.

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