(Originally written for Lift Cannabis on 17 August 2016)
Ashley Kilroy, Denver’s Marijuana Czar, spoke to delegates from the 444 municipalities across Ontario about legalization at the annual AMO AGM
The 2016 Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) Conference played host to Denver, Colorado’s Marijuana Czar this week. The AMO is the representative and advocacy body for the 444 municipalities across Ontario. Their annual general meeting was scheduled from August 14th to 17th at the Caesar Hotel in downtown Windsor. Delegates gathered to discuss pressing issues, including sustainability in energy, agriculture and transportation, infrastructure development, and public safety reform.
Ashley Kilroy, Marijuana Czar for the City of Denver, Colorado took to the centre stage on Tuesday to address the nearly 2000 delegates at this year’s Annual General Meeting. In conversation afterward, Kilroy laughed as she self-identified as one of the leading global experts in the field – a field she has been involved in for a little over two and half years.
“Working in Marijuana legalization, you count in dog years,” she chuckled, when discussing her relationship with other counterparts in other states. “The six-month head start we had on Washington might as well have been six years for all we learned in that time.”
Kilroy took the time to walk the audience through the past two and a half years of legalisation in Denver – or the “Denver Collaborative Model” as they call it. For those of us in Canada who are concerned about the complicated road to legislation ahead, Kilroy’s breakdown of the division of responsibilities in the US should make us feel fortunate.
HISTORY & DIVISION OF POWERS
In 2000, the State of Colorado voted to legalise cannabis for medicinal purposes. The state began licensing commercial growers as well as, much like the Canadian system, individuals who could grow for personal use or could appoint someone to grow for them.
In 2012, citizens of Colorado voted to pass Amendment 64, legalising the commercial sale of cannabis for adults. The Amendment came into effect in January of 2014. Citizens of Colorado can now access cannabis for personal use through licensed storefronts or can grow up to 6 plants per adult (to a maximum of 12 per household, though exceptions are made for co-ops).
Under Amendment 64, the State is now responsible for establishing licensing and operation requirements, advertising, packaging and labelling requirements, as well as cultivation standards.
Cities in Colorado were given the option to opt in or opt out of legalisation. If they chose to opt in, they were allowed to establish any reasonable additional requirements they so chose – hours of operation, a cap on the number of licenses, zoning regulations, etc. A full 70 per cent of Colorado municipalities chose to opt out. Denver, a city of 700,000 with a greater urban area of close to 3,000,000, chose to opt in.
Overarching all of this, are the federal regulations. Federally, marijuana is still considered a Schedule I Drug, alongside heroin, LSD and bath salts.
And so, in January 2014, storefronts began legally selling cannabis for nonmedical purposes for the first time in modern history, and Kilroy took on the role of Executive Director of Marijuana Policy for the City of Denver. Kilroy is an experienced lawyer and public servant, whose past roles included Deputy Manager of the Department of Safety, Senior City Attorney for the City and County of Denver, Deputy General Counsel for Denver Public Schools, and Assistant County Attorney for Washington County.
Amongst the many hats she wears in her current role, Kilroy’s most time consuming is the coordination of agencies. Denver’s Collaborative Model lives up to its name, and Kilroy credits whatever success they have had to date on the City’s commitment to working closely with stakeholders across the city.
While there are many departments and offices that play a smaller role – like Denver 3-1-1 who receive regular calls from visitors and citizens alike looking for clarification on cannabis regulations – many others saw their roles and responsibilities dramatically change when legalisation came in.
Kilroy stressed the importance of the Fire Department for example, and the incredible role they have had to play in the implementation process. There was the obvious – ensuring that fire safety was enforced and new facilities were up to existing code. But the process of extracting hash oil took everyone at the City by shock.
Kilroy admits to having been unfamiliar with the process of extracting oil from leaf. “The first time we saw butane being used in processing, we were at a loss,” she explained. Once again leaning on the collaborative model, they brought industry into the conversation, and together, the Fire Department and the producers established a new set of regulations to oversee the extraction of oil.
Denver has issued over 1,000 licenses to 460 facilities – one facility can have multiple licenses, as the license required to operate a storefront is different from the one required to manufacture or cultivate, activities which could all take place in a single facility. Additionally, there are countless legal non-licensed growers, including individuals who grow at home, as well as caregivers and collectives who might grow for medicinal purposes.
The commercial licensing process is not short – it is no wonder that Kilroy had to hire over 50 new City employees in the first year alone. First the area must be zoned appropriately, then an application submitted. From there, a community consultation process in undertaken, to ensure there is buy-in and support from the neighbours.
Fire and building inspections come next, followed by a separate insurance process. While not yet perfect – Kilroy highlighted the challenge with the over concentration of cultivators and storefront in low to medium income neighborhoods as one such challenge – the City is clearly trying.
Once Kilroy had covered the basics of the first year of implementation, she turned to the topics that often dominate the Canadian conversation: namely revenue and public safety.
The City of Denver collected over $22,000,000 in cannabis sales related tax revenue in 2014 and $27,000,000 in 2015. While these seem like substantial numbers, Kilroy was quick to highlight that they represent only a little over 2.5% of the City’s total operating budget – a nice bonus for sure, but not a game changing amount. It does however, more than cover the cost of overseeing the new regulations – operating expenses came to just under $6,900,000 in 2014. Of the remainder, $1,500,000 was directed toward youth prevention and education programs, and the rest divided between public health and general city expenses.
In 2015 for example, they were able to direct an unanticipated $3,000,000 in revenue to the building of a new recreation centre. “It is important to the Mayor that this process has a net benefit on the City,” explained Kilroy in conversation after her speech. “We want the citizens to know where that extra revenue is going, we want them to see the impact.”
PUBLIC HEALTH & SAFETY
Kilroy then turned her attention to the public safety impact of legalisation. One of the biggest challenges for her and her team has been accurate data collection. With almost no baseline data to start from, it has been difficult to quantify the impacts on public health, crime, hospitalisation and driving under the influence of drugs since 2014.
The trends they could draw were evidently reassuring to many in audience. The only statistically significant increase in crime they found was related to the pounds of marijuana seized in the average bust. Meaning, while there were not as many discoveries of illegal growing or distribution, when there was one, the amount of marijuana found was greater. Anecdotally, the City and police believe this has to do with out of state trafficking. Now that it is easier to grow in Colorado, organized crime is likely cultivating in large quantities within the state and then driving it over the border to states where cannabis remains illegal and the street price can be up to three times higher than the market price in Denver.
Driving Under the Influence of Drugs
They did see a marginal increase in the number of drivers charged with driving impaired and under the influence of marijuana. Kilroy warned she was weary of these statistics in general – in the State of Colorado, the punishment is the same for driving under the influence of alcohol as it is for driving under the influence of cannabis or any other drug. Therefore, if the police suspect someone is both drunk and high, it is much quicker and cheaper for the police to charge someone with a simple DUI for alcohol and it will result in the same repercussions for the offender. Until 2014, there was also no distinction made between driving under the influence of marijuana and cocaine for example – both were simply written up as “driving under the influence of drugs” or a DUID, further complicating data collection.
Emergency Room Visits as a Result of Marijuana Use
Emergency room visits resulting from the consumption of cannabis were another measurement that has shown an increase – notable though not alarming. This is another metric that suffers from collection challenges, as they did not begin tracking this explicitly until 2011. Since then however, there has been a steady increase in visits to the hospital related to marijuana consumption, though no real increase in hospitalisation rates.
Usage Amongst Youth
Another significant factor that concerns many in the Canadian public is the potential impact of legalisation on youth. While there has been a significant decrease in the perceived harm of casual consumption of marijuana amongst youth in the state of Colorado, there has been absolutely zero increase in youth usage since legalisation.
THE UNFORESEEN IMPACTS OF LEGALISATION
Kilroy wrapped up her presentation with a series of unforeseen impacts of legalisation. They ranged from the impact of legalisation on the City’s reputation – “There is more to Denver than just legal weed!” she exclaimed – to the changes in zoning and land use, particularly of old warehouse space.
Her biggest concern however, has been the impact on energy use and sustainability. In Denver, it is only legal to grow cannabis indoors – not so in the rest of Colorado. As a result, there has been a substantial increase in energy use, which concerns Kilroy.
Despite these challenges, Kilroy was optimistic and positive. She was proud of her team – being on the cutting edge of such a significant policy change has been empowering and energizing for her employees, many of whom are now considered experts in their field and find themselves consulting with other jurisdictions around the world.
When asked what advice she had for new jurisdictions looking to legalise and commercialise cannabis, she emphasised the need to collaborate – collaborate with the police force, the fire department, the airport authority, public health agencies, educational institutions, the public – with any and all relevant stakeholders. In a field that is building the plane as they fly, cooperation, collaboration and flexibility seem to be the keys to success – and Ashley Kilroy has those in spades.