Overseeing half a decade of legal cannabis: Q&A with Denver marijuana czar Ashley Kilroy

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Ashley Kilroy has overseen Denver’s recreational cannabis industry since Colorado launched adult-use sales in 2014.

As director of Denver’s Department of Excise and Licenses and the agency’s Office of Marijuana Policy, Kilroy has seen cannabis business owners experience growing pains as the industry has matured.

“Being first wasn’t easy,” she said. “We’re proud of what we have accomplished, but we know we have to prepare for new challenges ahead as the marijuana industry evolves.”

Kilroy spoke with Marijuana Business Daily about how cannabis companies in the Mile High City have stabilized, what they can do better and what’s on the horizon in 2019.

What have business owners learned over the past five years?

I’ve seen a stabilization of the industry. A maturation. And a lot of exciting innovation.

At the beginning we definitely had a lot of people who were passionate and excited to be at the table and really helpful for us, but they weren’t always speaking with one voice and it was hard for us to come to consensus. We had to have multiple players around the table, from regulators, to the state, to the industry, to community members and health-care partners.

At first, the marijuana industry wasn’t as aligned as they are now. So now I think they know more about what they want and what they’re doing.

They can deliver that to us government regulators in a more cohesive way that’s easier for us to act on.

Is the cannabis business community doing a better job of communicating with your department now?

At times I see things getting escalated without people first coming to the source and asking us – with someone being worried about a new change in a regulation or a process or whatever.

Rather than just picking up the phone and calling our chief inspector, or calling the deputy of operations or calling the department directly, sometimes I think they’re worried about calling us.

When they don’t do that, things get overblown with incorrect information.

What should business owners do to avoid a problem like that?

We’re always open. Not just our department, but our building department and our environmental health department.

Our goal is safety.

It is cheaper for the city and our taxpayers if our licensed businesses understand the law and are in compliance than if we have to go out a year later and find they’re not in compliance.

How can the business community in a new state or city that legalizes adult-use cannabis help to facilitate a good working relationship with regulators?

That’s a great question. A lot of times the industry may complain to me or the mayor about a specific problem.

Then, at my weekly meetings, I can call in all the different agencies and say who did X, Y and Z with this and what was this about?

What innovation have you seen from marijuana companies?

We first started off with the industry trying to learn basic cultivation practices when you’re growing in a fully locked space. Just that alone was very challenging.

Now people have figured out best cultivation practices that allow them to grow safely and not use prohibited pesticides.

And they’ve learned how to build their hash oil machines so they can extract safely and have safe procedures for their employees. Better food-handling practices.

All of those basics were innovative when we first got started.

Most of the people in the (infused products) part of the industry knew how to extract hash oil, but they might not have come from a food-safety background and then didn’t know the best food safety and handling practices.

What should marijuana business owners be thinking about in 2019, especially in communicating with your department and interacting with regulators?

I just ask that the industry continue to be connected to us, continue to call us with questions.

One of the things we’ve seen is where the industry starts coming up with some new innovation – that old adage, seek forgiveness, don’t ask permission – and we don’t know what they’ve been doing.

All the sudden we find some new innovation and we’re like, “If you would have told us you were doing this, we could have walked this path together and we could have helped guide you with where the regulators might go as result of this.”

A perfect example is when we first got started.

One of our inspectors had gone in and inspected an extraction facility and said, “You need this certain type of hood.”

That hood cost the business $40,000, and the business wasn’t too happy about it.

Then, when we went back a year later, their processes had completely changed and they didn’t need the $40,000 hood. They needed an explosion-proof room and a new hood, and that cost a significant amount of money.

So, had we known the full extent of what they were doing up front, it would have saved them time and sort of having to retrofit and backtrack in order to keep their employees safe.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Bart Schaneman can be reached at barts@mjbizdaily.com