These 3 Colorado women light up the fight for legal weed

These 3 Colorado women light up the fight for legal weed

Simply Pure dispensary has a kind and open energy — the bud-tenders don’t push themselves on you. They’re there to help educate and inform you. Promotional stickers for women-owned businesses are pasted on the fridge.

My first bud of choice was Pootie Tang, a sativa hybrid with crystally nuggets and a bright scent. The difference in quality is striking.

I sit down with owner and grower Wanda James, a fearless pioneer fighting the patriarchy and racism in the cannabis world.

"We don’t all start from day one as fearless as Wanda James." 

James is tall and beautiful. Her power emanates as she sits down.

She's calm. Legs crossed. Ready to tackle the world.

She tells us the cannabis industry was pioneered by women long before men took it over.

“I’ve always been a woman in a man’s world, and the first woman in a couple of worlds. I’ve always worked in male-dominated industries. I was a tech geek raised by a single dad, with only brothers. Men don’t scare me, and I don’t shrink from them. I’m rooted in this industry — you can’t go under me, or over me. I got here first.”

James held her ground in a world run by aggressive men long before her foray into cannabis. She was a commissioned officer in the NAVY and it served her well. Men’s attempts to bulldoze her were a constant in that in that environment. She learned to stay cool and collected. She was appointed to President Obama's National Finance Committee in 2008.

“As a young woman, when you achieve things mentally and physically of a certain caliber, it creates a sense of confidence and toughness. Your cage doesn’t get rattled by assholes who try to provoke you.”

The military was rigorous but structured — a combination that made it easier for James to adapt to her life. Uniforms and rank are unambiguous. Authority is transparent. Straightforward.

In a corporate environment, manipulation and deceptive loopholes make for unpredictability and arbitrary change. Something she would encounter full force in the corporatization of cannabis.

“I feel as if my generation failed your generation. If we’re still fighting wars that my grandfather fought, then they let us down. And we let you down.”

Now there's an upheaval in the cannabis world. James calls it a “lava break'".

The Cannabis World Congress & Business Exposition invited Roger Stone to be its keynote speaker at conferences in September and October. James and her colleagues in the Minority Cannabis Business Association staged a boycott that prompted 243 would-be attendees to drop out of the workshop.

When we meet, CWCBE’s organizers continue to shut down opposition to their strange new bedfellow, and instead lash out at critics like James, who calls Stone a “known psychopath and racist”.

Stone returned to the public fore on Trump’s heels.

He’s the squashed bug under all our shoes.

The New Republic's Alex Shephard called Stone — a devout Goldwater Republican at 12 and man who sports a large back tattoo of Nixon’s face — "the cockroach of American politics".

And Stone has joined the battle to legalize cannabis. For all the wrong reasons.

Obviously.

None of that is lost on James.

“CWCBE doesn’t care about the opinions of minorities or women. It’s more important to them to maintain this speaker who insults so many groups.”

Event organizer and white dude-bro from some entitled frat, Scott Giannotti reportedly called James “a nutjob”.

“Let’s call it as it is: it’s just a synonym for angry Black woman,” — a trope James wears with pride.

“If angry Black woman wants to be your argument, then I’ll just own that title. Own the stereotype to take away its power. If we need me to agree with you on that point, then I’ll reclaim that term and move forward with the conversation.”

We shouldn't be surprised by Stone's inclusion — an idea the CWCBC finally let go last month, due to months of intense public pressure.

Racism has been the seedy underbelly of corporate cannabis for a while.

“The industry was initially filled with suits before women got involved and created a united force. And now the women are being spoken over, and those suits are back in charge, calling the shots — as evident in this Roger Stone situation. “

She has confidence in the fight, and stresses the role allies can play in the face of white supremacy.

“You see white people fighting other white people and their viewpoints. People of color are educated out of necessity — you’re part of the argument you’re fighting for. “

As a mixed-race woman, James saw things in a “post-racial” light when she was younger.

It was the 1980's! Revolution was in the air.

She believed that all the hate was rooted in her parents’ generation, not hers.

Her father knew things weren't that simple.

“You’re going out in the world with rose-colored glasses. The more money you make and more successful you become, the more problems you’ll have.”

It wasn’t long before her father’s words were confirmed for James, time and again.

She glances up at me with a sad half-smile. “I feel as if my generation failed your generation. If we’re still fighting wars that my grandfather fought, then they let us down. And we let you down.”

Texas police arrested James’s brother for simple marijuana possession when he was only 17. They kept him in prison for 10 years.

“Racial profiling clearly played a role in my 17 year old brother’s 10 year sentence, almost half of which he spent picking 100 lbs of cotton in a field, daily. America brags about its slave labor via prisons, and how little they pay. He came out of the system basically unemployable, having missed school, with no degree, and felon hanging above his head. This plant has shown me the good and bad of this country, along with representing both the highs and lows of my world. This plant is an all-consuming representation of my life, and I’m glad it’s that way. It's led me to meet some amazing people.”  

It's been a rollercoaster of a journey for James — a journey she wouldn't trade, given the chance.

“The hits I take in this industry, especially recently, they do hurt. But I love doing my job every day. Everything has its obstacles. And for me, my obstacles are worth it at the end of the day, being a fighter in this industry.”

Education is the only weapon.

Folks on the margins have educated themselves out of necessity. That's what James said earlier.

To educate ourselves is a survival tactic, in a society that is only too quick to target us because we’re the other.

Racism, sexism and prejudice against cannabis-users stem from a similar ignorance, urged on by the howls of fear-mongering.

Medicinal cannabis users have educated themselves to defend their point of view. And the capacity to see multiple perspectives breaks us out of closed-mindedness.

But this kind of education isn’t required by the likes of Roger Stone, whose access to choice is not endangered and who barrels through life without empathy for anyone.

Men like Roger Stone just get to exist, unimpeded. They define the norm.

This has to change, and education is the only sane path.

And the harsh truth is that groups with less power — whether IBPOC, cannabis users, women, queer and trans folks, disabled people — have always been made to educate others. Ohhh emotional labour.

But women in the cannabis industry continue to thrive, learn and teach. We sat down with two of James’s Women Grow co-founders, Julie Dooley and Christie Lunsford. They’re at the forefront of the edible world and the grow-house supplies world. We couldn’t wait to chat with them next.

“The strife comes from the suits — the more corporate, financial aspect of our industry. These suits didn’t exist in the beginning — women were mostly educating and baking, rather than in financial sectors of this industry. With people like this now in charge, it pushes people to make fear-based decisions, rather than education-based, as we’ve been conditioned to.”

Christie Lunsford. Image by Jessica Villareal

Christie Lunsford founded Endocannabinoidology LLC, a consulting firm that provides cannabis science, technology and education management to the cannabis industry. Lunsford was voted Cannabis Woman of the Year at the 2015 Cannabis Business Awards. She works at Pro Max Grow, a grow light company based in Denver.

I feel her warmth and openness through her bright, bubbly smile, and we sit down to talk about the jobs she juggles, and how she’s gotten to where she’s at now.

Lunsford sold her edibles business to Dixie Elixers, an herbal brand that fills fridges all over Denver's dispensaries. With that relationship in place, she took hold of Dixie's marketing portfolio and "turned science into digestible information".

Education is also paramount for Lunsford, who's used her consulting firm to educate and advocate on cannabis use. She works first and foremost with women, but since men comprise most of Colorado’s grower population, she interacts with them too.

“And luckily, those male growers are some of the most open-hearted people in the industry”.

She puts down her coffee cup, her eyes earnest, then furrows her brow.

“The strife comes from the suits — the more corporate, financial aspect of our industry. These suits didn’t exist in the beginning — women were mostly educating and baking, rather than in financial sectors of this industry. With people like this now in charge, it pushes people to make fear-based decisions, rather than education-based, as we’ve been conditioned to.”

Lunsford’s family wasn’t always enthusiastic about her career aspirations.

“My conservative, Texan family wasn’t super supportive at first, though they are now — they didn’t understand that smoking was the same stress-reliever as drinking. But at least with state legalization, we have an even playing field now where we can start a dialogue with people who have false assumptions.“

She reminds us that to work with businessmen in a patriarchal climate, it’s okay to not feel like Wonder Woman every day. That’s part of being human.

“We don’t all start from day one as fearless as Wanda James. People need to know that courage is something that can be built, and everyone faces fears — I face fears, after years of success in this industry. Everyone doubts themselves at some time — no one is bulletproof with their confidence. But at the core, It’s about holding onto your integrity and values. The one word I would use to describe myself would be resolute. I don’t believe in taking no for an answer. I believe in not being afraid to ask for what you want.”

Lunsford agrees with James on the importance of cannabis-related education, and sees funding shortfalls as a product of ignorance — while Viagra dominates a multi-billion-dollar industry.

“There’s a lack of studies in this field, and it’s the culprit for why we’re not in a more evolved state of mind.”

I feel the camaraderie James and Lunsford share. It's palpable. I'm excited to meet their third friend and Women Grow co-founder, Julie Dooley. She’s the owner of the most successful sugar-free edibles business in Denver.

Image of Julie's kitchen by Image by Jessica Villareal

As I enter Julie’s kitchen, I inhale a whirring hub of maternal energy, and a powerful whiff of honey and chronic.

The kitchen is situated in a restaurant equipment warehouse. Dooley’s team ushers us to the back. I put on my hairnet and take a lint-roller to my clothes.

Inside, the women churn, stir and squelch, focused but with a smile as they produce some of the best edibles in Colorado. Empty maple syrup and honey jars line the shelves of the sugar-free facility.

The staff at Julie's Natural Edibles. Image by Jessica Villareal

I see a snack corner filled with rolled up bags of Doritos and Lays — the glue that binds stoner friendships. No fruit and grain salads for us.

Dooley’s eyes are kind. She nods at me even as she listens to a multitude of voices around her that ask her to sign off a million things.

She sits across from me, accomplished but humble.

Julie Dooley and writer, Naima Karp. Image by Jessica Villareal

Dooley’s edibles are sugar-free. She says edibles with sugar bring down the effects of THC, and don’t digest well. So she goes with the OG method, which processes better in the liver and lasts longer.

She also self-medicates due to a struggle with Celiac disease.

“I used to be 90 pounds after mothering three children and constantly felt bloated with dark circles around my eyes. Gluten free edibles changed that for me, entirely.”

“My motto is and always has been with my kids: who gives a shit what anybody else says? My house has always been a safe-house — consumption is permitted."

Her first female smoking buddy was her friend Kate, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor and used it for relief from chemo.

“We would have smoking dates. But as parents, smoking was getting in the way. We would pick our kids up and smell like weed, and face judgement from other parents. So we started making butter instead. And that’s sort of how I entered the edible world — with Kate as my co-founder.”

The stigma she faced as a mom is gendered. If we see a man who's also a dad smoke a joint, at worst we'll frame it as outdated and eye-roll worthy. Boys will be boys.

But ripe for scrutiny, women are the object of a witch-hunt — even for medical, non-recreational use.

Talking to your kids about cannabis is tough, but Dooley manages it with ease, regardless of social backlash. She features safety and teen use prevention links on her site. Her secret ingredients are honesty and an open-door policy.

“My motto is, and always has been with my kids: who gives a shit what anybody else says? My house has always been a safe-house — consumption is permitted. Of course that means I face judgment from parents, but I still remain welcoming. And it’s an educated safe house — let me clarify that. I always ask them why they’re using it. Sometimes, cannabis isn’t the best course of treatment, and it’s definitely never a substitute for real help. People need opportunities to talk about these things. Since they’re talking to me, I can see if it’s appropriate, instead of having them do things in secrecy and have something potentially dangerous happen.”

But Dooley doesn't condone underage marijuana use. She discourages it. Her objective is to maintain an open discussion with youth. She listens, and she gives them the straight goods.

Like Lunsford, Dooley finds the stereotypes and lack of education around cannabis alarming. She educates her kids and aims to educate the outside world. With a little luck, the work will pay off.

The mission to dispel cannabis myths has the capacity to shift common wisdom. It seems predictable that women be the ones to lift the veil of taboo. Of course.

She says the keys to success are to stay open-minded, and attain federal legalization.

“Repression has never ended well. Putting something back in the bottle just leads to a black market. A legal framework will be more beneficial to society and help lead to more awareness and education, which is the goal in all of this. The greatest obstacle is education, by far. Becoming an advocate is key to turning people around. And have them stop fostering this fear.”

Editor's note: an earlier version of this article implied that Julie Dooley might condone underage cannabis consumption. That is incorrect. We've edited the article accordingly.

Born and raised in New York, Naima is 26 and has worked as a freelance writer since she was a teenager. She's a leftie — (handed, and in all senses of the word) — an anthropologist and a culture-writer. With a Muslim mother, a Jewish father and an upbringing at the United Nations School, my perspectives are often strong-footed, and have roots in many different pots.