In a New Cannabis Landscape, a Navy Veteran Battles for Racial Equity

“Transforming Spaces” is a series about women driving change in sometimes unexpected places.


Jam the towel under the door. Open the window. And hide the bong.

For decades, college students have found ways to mask the pungent aroma of marijuana smoke on campuses. Wanda James, however, did not always feel a need to hide. A 1986 graduate of the University of Colorado Boulder, Ms. James would sit on the steps outside her dorm and roll joints with her friends.

It would be decades before Colorado became one of the first two states in the country to legalize recreational cannabis, but on campus, James never worried.

“The worst that would happen is they would tell us to put it away, or they might take it from us, and that was the end of it,” Ms. James recalled of the campus police.

Fast forward 40 years: Ms. James, a former Navy lieutenant, is a member of her alma mater’s Board of Regents — and a prominent advocate of racial justice in the changing cannabis landscape.

It wasn’t until after college that Ms. James realized she had been living in something of an alternate reality with her cannabis use. She learned how the United States’ marijuana laws have led to Black Americans’ being sentenced to prison at a higher rate than white Americans despite near equal usage rates, setting her on the mission to which she has dedicated her life.

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