Ashley Kilroy did not expect to be the creator of the U.S.’s first legal cannabis framework when she entered city government 25 years ago. As the first-ever Director of the Office Marijuana Policy, Kilroy built a city regulatory system in an industry where the unknowns far outweighed the knowns.
“Our city is where it is today because she answered the call to serve,” Mayor Michael Hancock said of her tenure.
Last week, Kilroy, now director of Denver’s Department of Excise and Licenses, announced her departure from the city. Deputy Director of Policy and Administration Molly Duplechian will take on her post as interim director on Jan. 7, 2022.
Denverite caught up with Kilroy to ask her about her time as Denver’s first-ever cannabis regulator, what she sees for the future of cannabis and where she’s headed next.
As a young lawyer turned city-government expert, Kilroy never followed cannabis legalization closely until it became her job to get it right. She said the pressure was on from the beginning.
“We were the first in the world. There was no blueprint. No other jurisdiction had done this yet,” Kilroy recalled. “It wound up being probably one of the most exciting times in my career.”
With a background in law, Kilroy moved into city politics to work with Mayors Wellington Webb and John Hickenlooper before Hancock tapped her to be the first Director of the Office of Marijuana Policy in 2014, just as the city legalized retail sales of recreational cannabis.
Kilroy hadn’t been following the legalization proceedings, so she spent her first month at the post collecting as much information as possible.
“I think I interviewed 100 people in 30-minute interviews,” she said.”[Anyone] from city councilmembers to public health officials, to our Economic Development Department, to marijuana advocates, to consumers.”
Her team was built from these interviews; an operations deputy and a data collector came on board — even a media communications director.
Questions that had never been asked before were now of immediate concern. What pesticides are safe to use for growing cannabis? The Denver Department of Health and Environment needed to know. Where should the city allow dispensaries to be built, and under what kind of zoning? Community Planning and Development had no idea. The Department of Treasury suddenly faced an influx of cash-only businesses due to the banking restrictions placed on the industry.
“As a government entity, we didn’t know what we didn’t know,” Kilroy said. “We were learning as we were going, and there were going to be times we weren’t going to get it completely right.”
Besides regular meetings with the state Marijuana Enforcement Division and cannabis industry heads, news outlets were also constantly looking for updates. Kilroy quickly became thankful for the communications specialist.
“The phone was literally ringing off the hook,” she recalled.
This growing interest spawned the first Marijuana Management Symposium in 2015, where Denver could showcase what it had learned. Industry representatives from countries including the Netherlands, Canada, Mexico and France sat in on the symposiums, Kilroy said.
New, industrialized and high-potency cannabis was not the same as its predecessors, and there were consequences no one could have predicted.
“We didn’t have them wrapped, we didn’t have them scored,” Kilroy recalled of the packaging at the time. “If we had had more time, maybe we would have started there. But that was really, really a low time.”
Standard 10 mg serving sizes were created as a result, and eventually other markings, like the highly-recognizable THC symbol were designed.
Although Kilroy was in the business of licensing and regulation, she certainly wanted businesses to thrive, she said. In the beginning, the barriers to entry were daunting.
“The marijuana industry did not have specialists, really. They didn’t have architects and engineers who could tell them, ‘This is how big of a grow you need. This is what the HVAC needs to look like,'” Kilroy explained. “I cared about helping these new businesses and these entrepreneurs who were risking everything.”
In 2019, Mayor Hancock and Kilroy brought on Joseph Pena, an ex-cannabis reporter, to become the first-ever Cannabis Process Navigator to help entrepreneurs work their way through the system.
Denver’s cannabis revenue tripled under Kilroy’s leadership. Since 2014, the industry has brought in $11.7 billion in sales and $1.9 billion in tax revenue statewide, according to the latest figures from the state Department of Revenue.
But Kilroy wanted Denver to retain its identity, too.
“Denver was the brunt of jokes on late-night television,” she said of the first years after legalization. But eventually, the stigma lessened, and Kilroy said the innovation and entrepreneurship represented in the cannabis industry grew to become a symbol of Denver’s daring side as well.
“I think Denver is still known for marijuana legalization, but I don’t think it’s the first thing that pops into people’s minds when they think about Denver,” she said.
Kilroy believes it’s only a matter of time before national legalization arrives, in large part because of the city’s success.
“If Denver hadn’t gotten this right, we wouldn’t be where we are right now,” she said.
We asked her where she was headed next, especially with the niche skillset she has acquired. She said first and foremost would be visiting her family; She hasn’t seen one of her daughters since before the pandemic.
She’s also not worried about her department. Kilroy believes Duplechian will serve the city well and is proud of the legacy she leaves behind.
“I wouldn’t be leaving if we weren’t in a good place and in great hands,” she said.
This story was updated to reflect that Richard Kirk pled guilty in 2017.