Convention Conversations

Why Denver Began Teaching Other Cities About Legal Cannabis

Denver has been attracting regulators from around the world to learn about legal pot policy since 2015.
Kate McKee Simmons
Denver has been attracting regulators from around the world to learn about legal pot policy since 2015.
Denver no longer has the unique distinction of boasting skyscrapers and dispensaries within city limits. Seattle, Portland, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco and now Boston are all selling recreational cannabis, and don't forget Toronto, Montreal and every large Canadian city.

So why does Denver still feel the need to teach officials and regulators from other cities about legal pot?

"We were the first," explains Denver Department of Excise and Licenses director Ashley Kilroy, who oversees the department responsible for regulating over 500 cannabis business in Denver. "Our first year of legalization, we just kept getting question after question about it from other cities, so the mayor said, 'Let's just hold a conference about it.'"

After Mayor Michael Hancock made that suggestion, the first Denver Marijuana Management Symposium was scheduled for November 5, 2015. "I don't know that I had super-high expectations when we first did this, but I knew it'd be valuable," remembers former Excise and Licenses communications director Dan Rowland. "Those who came probably left with more questions than answers, because that's just the nature of this kind of thing. But there will always be new regulators to this space who need some help, so the interest will always be there."

click to enlarge
(From left) Barbara Brohl, Andrew Freedman, Dan Rowland and Ashley Kilroy chat during the 2018 Marijuana Management Symposium.
Courtesy of the City of Denver
Rowland worked for Excise and Licenses during Colorado's transition into allowing adult-use cannabis sales, serving the department until early this year. Tasked with organizing the first symposium, Rowland didn't have many "experts" to draw from, so he looked in his own back yard, bringing in officials from public health, law enforcement and business-licensing departments in Denver and across the state to teach their peers from Washington and Oregon, which had both just approved pot sales, as well as interested parties from around the globe.

Potential attendees included all the government officials who'd already been pelting Rowland with questions. "We had around 300 people the first year, and it just took off," he recalls. "It didn't quash the demand or number of requests for one-offs and meetings, though. We still had those, but at least we could direct people toward this event going forward."

The city has held the Marijuana Management Symposium every November since 2015; its most recent confab  drew around 450 people. Rowland, who now works for a private consulting firm, attended the conference as a speaker and attendee this time. The former communications advisor helps local governments figure out their legalization implementations, and he credits much of his knowledge to talks at the symposium.

Although the first conference was heavy with Colorado speakers, it's since expanded to speakers from the Netherlands, Canada and Malaysia, as well as other legalized states, including Alaska, California, Oregon and more. The talks have evolved as the pot industry has, Rowland adds.

"It really became more interesting during the second and third years. We were actually hearing about how things were going in California, Nevada, Oregon or even the Netherlands. The different approaches, needs and desires that all communities have can help you make decisions about yours," he says. "This year, I was blown away by how great and valuable the content still is. The issues discussed now are so much more in-depth and sophisticated, because all of these regulators have been dealing with it for four or five years now. We still have all this information to share."

Earlier editions largely focused on implementation, financial implications and protecting local governments from federal interference. While all of those are still discussed in some form, this year's symposium also included talks on approaches toward regulating social consumption, universal packaging standards, social equity programs for the industry and other complicated issues — many of which Denver still hasn't figured out.

"At first we were just kind of asking the nuts and bolts of how to do this and how to protect it from federal interference," Kilroy explains. "Now the questions can be a lot broader. How do we want encourage this market to develop? What are the social-equity issues related to marijuana?"

Hancock's office is committed to making social equity a bigger part of the city's cannabis policy, according to Kilroy. In June, the mayor asked the Denver city attorney, the county court system and other city agencies to collaborate on an expungement program for minor cannabis convictions from before 2012, for actions that are no longer considered crimes.

While Denver's pot regulations aren't perfect, that's some marijuana management we can get behind.