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Colorado couple Wanda James and Scott Durrah sell buds, and high-end culinary marijuana-infused edibles.

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"Since I've been at the forefront of this movement for over 20 years now, I'm a master of marijuana."

Once upon a time, marijuana was something you purchased by “knowing a guy who knows a guy.” Today, you can purchase it in a well-lit and professionally designed retail store, now formally called a marijuana "dispensary." As the laws are lifted and entrepreneurs are entering the market, Blacks are increasingly getting in on the game of selling marijuana. Legally. Who wouldn't be tempted to act upon a market projected to hit over $6-Billion in 2016,  and reach $22-Billion by 2020?

According to research cited in an article published by Forbes magazine in February of this year, legal cannabis sales jumped 17%, to $5.4 billion in 2015 and they will grow by a whopping 25% this year to reach $6.7 billion in total U.S. sales.The numbers are staggering, considering that the first recreational marijuana dispensaries opened for business in Colorado only two years ago.

23 States Are Now Lit Up

Legalization is beginning to snowball, pushed forward by popular demand. Twenty-three states now have medical marijuana; four and Washington, D.C., permit recreational use; and an additional 16 allow non-psychoactive forms of the cannabis plant. Public support for marijuana legalization has more than doubled over the past 20 years, hitting a recent high of 58% nationwide.

The King of the Dog Pound is Now Selling Marijuana By the Pound and Pounds.  

Rapper and entrepreneur Snoop Dogg launched his “Leafs By Snoop” line less than a year ago partnering with LivWell stores in Colorado to sell his flowers, edibles and concentrates in their pot shops. Snoop became the first A-list celebrity to go to market with a full, self-branded line of commercialized cannabis. His company's products are made under a Colorado marijuana license belonging to Beyond Broadway, which does business as LivWell. They will grow all of the brand’s flowers and manufacture its edibles and concentrates. This is because Snoop can’t technically own the Leafs By Snoop brand, because he is not a Colorado resident.

“Since I’ve been at the forefront of this movement for over 20 years now, I’m a master of marijuana,” Snoop said. “So naturally, my people can trust that I picked out the finest, freshest products in the game. Let’s medicate, elevate and put it in the air.” On October 6th, stocks for Canopy Growth Corporation, the equity corporation for Snoops company jumped and soared 17% on a single day of trading, representing a record high after unveiling the Leafs By Snoop in Canada.

The Growing Marijuana Business. It’s Not Just for A-List Celebrities Anymore.

 A growing number of blacks are getting in on the sales of “merry Jane” with names that are not stars on Hollywood’s walk of fame. Black dispensary owners and marijuana brands are being led by everyone from former armed forces officers to Fortune 500 executives.

Denver, Colorado couple, Wanda James and Scott Durrah are standouts among the handful of Blacks who have successfully launched marijuana-based businesses. Their brand name is Simply Pure. In 2008, James and Durrah became the first African American dispensary owners in the rocky mountain state. Today, the couple has expanded and in addition to the dispensary, James and Durrah own a marijuana edibles business, and a gourmet cooking school positioned to be the first cannabis-focused cooking school in the U.S.

"We're so far from pot brownies and gummy bears," notes Durrah, of their Simply Pure Medicated Edibles line, which he proudly boasts has taken culinary cannabis to well, new highs, with its premium marijuana infused products—including apple butter, peanut butter, strawberry jam, mango salsa and granola bars. "All of our products are organic, vegan and gluten-free; we're all about high end, gourmet foods and products."

It's a fitting niche for Durrah, the executive chef for their southern food restaurant, Jezebel's Southern Bistro and Bar, in Denver's trendy LoHi neighborhood. The Marine veteran has also served as a personal chef for many current and former professional athletes, including Denver Nuggets and Broncos players.

Barriers to Entry

Blacks who have managed to start legal cannabis businesses or apply for licenses have sometimes found themselves subject to discriminatory law enforcement. They’ve been followed by the stigma that black people who sell pot are dangerous criminals and white people who do the same are goofy hippies.

A Colorado man, sites his experience when Colorado’s first medical marijuana dispensaries were opened in 2009. He’d been smoking weed since he was 15, and he’d even learned how to grow, from his ex-girlfriend’s father. He spent $750 on classes about how to run a cannabis business, and then he and a friend both applied to work at a Denver pot shop.

But only his friend was hired, even though he was more than qualified.

So why didn’t he get the gig? His friend asked the managers and he came back with this answer: he was not allowed to work in the legal cannabis industry because he had been caught twice with a joint’s worth of pot as a teenager when he lived back in Oklahoma. As a result he has two drug possession felonies on his record.

For most jobs, experience will help you get ahead. In the marijuana industry, it’s not that simple. Yes, investors and state governments are eager to hire and license people with expertise in how to cultivate, cure, trim, and process cannabis. But it can’t be someone who got caught. Which for the most part means it can’t be someone who is black.

No existing marijuana law tries to account for or acknowledge the harm prohibition has done to communities of color. Cannabis legalization campaign workers are told to never mention race. News anchors talk about pot with a smirk, illustrated by photographs of white college kids getting high, and rarely mention criminal justice reform in the same breath. They are separate policies, carried out by separate laws, with little consideration given to how one might affect the other.

Go Legit. Or Stay Illegit.

For many Black entrepreneurs – That is the Question.

“There are not many jobs out there for black folks,” says an unnamed dispensary owner. "There is an underground market for marijuana and a large part of our community participates in it. A lot of people in the inner city live on those drugs, and we don’t like to admit that.” Legalization, she said, “might be an opportunity for economic development for everyone in the community with a business mind.”

And yet many of the black people “with a business mind” who have tried to get involved in the legal marijuana have encountered the same racism and disproportionate policing as before pot became legal.

“On the black market, you can make way more than in the shop,” said an illegit seller who tried to become a legitimate dispensary operator.

“No taxes. No overhead. It took a lot to walk away from what I was making.

I turned away from a lot of illegal business to do it right. I was staying legit and not breaking none of these rules because I don’t need no problems, and what do I get for following the rules? Seventy-two months in prison.” This operator’s store was raided and he was sent to prison.

Another operator, based in Berkeley, California, spent years fighting and failing to get local officials to recognize that his cannabis collective was just as legitimate as the three dispensaries that the city formally recognized. “We’d go up there with a permit, and we’d slide it across the table, and they’d slide it right back at us,” the operator said.

The Future

Despite the frustrations and consequences, many blacks maintain a sense of optimism and commitment. They see the economic opportunities that marijuana legalization will create. And they vow to stay in it to win it.

Says, Wanda James of Denver’s Simply Pure - "I want the African American community to see this for what it is, which is an amazing opportunity with a plant that is not a fatal plant. I want to see politicians speak positively about this industry and the fact that we are saving lives and the lives of our people who are being incarcerated."

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