Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on July 2, 2018.

"We didn't know what we didn't know"

A Denver marijuana policy official shares lessons learned


The city of Denver’s department of excise and licenses inside city hall feels a lot like a typical registry department. Bored-looking people in a waiting area sit in aging chairs or mill about aimlessly, periodically glancing at the screens positioned around the room in hopes their number will be called. Many are here to renew or acquire a license; for some, it’s to open a tattoo parlor, a pedicab business, or a food truck. For others, it’s a permit to build a marijuana grow or processing facility.

That marijuana growers must now endure the same mundane bureaucratic waiting rooms as restaurateurs indicates how far the industry has come to gaining mainstream acceptance here—and how far the city has come in learning how to regulate them. It’s been a long process that is still ongoing.

Soon after recreational marijuana became legal in 2014, Denver created the Office of Marijuana Policy, a collaborative cross-section of representatives of various city departments, such as the fire, building, health, environmental, licensing, and law enforcement, among others. That office has since been rolled into the licensing department. Molly Duplechian, who is now the city’s deputy director of policy and administration, joined the marijuana office in 2014 as its second employee after the mayor-appointed director, Ashley Kilroy. In short order, a team was assembled and they began meeting weekly.

“Those first meetings were very interesting,” Duplechian told me in a small conference room on the other side of the licensing department’s bustling counters. “We’d go around the table and get updates from broad range of perspectives. Some weeks a department would have something, sometimes not. Fire would often surprise us with the issue of the week. We gathered that info, talked about it, and collaborated on how to solve it.”

Since then, the process has followed a pattern: an unforeseen issue arises, everyone scrambles to learn what’s going on and why, and new rules and regulations are implemented to fix it. The marijuana industry has kept everyone on their toes.

I asked Duplechian to list a few things that she and other city leaders know now that they wished they’d known back in 2014.

  • Implement data tracking
  • “Start tracking data now, or actually two years ago,” she told me. “Data tracking has been so helpful. In that first six months we didn’t know what we didn’t know—we didn’t know what to track, how to track it, how to organize it, how to share it. That includes culling out marijuana separately from other drugs. For instance, all cities track DUIs, but not all track DUIs involving marijuana separately—now we do. You can do the same around fire incidents. Start that well before full legalization. People want to know for comparison if you have an increase in any metric after legalization. Start now and do it in a structured way.” The city now also tracks myriad other items such as marijuana-related hospital discharges and hospitalizations, youth marijuana use and perceptions, emergency room visits, drug treatment intake rates, poison control center data, and arrest rates, among other data.

  • Take steps to get funding
  • In 2013, a ballot initiative was put in front of Denver voters, asking them to approve a separate retail tax on marijuana to put toward regulation, enforcement, and education. Using that money, Duplechian said, the city now has 58 full-time-equivalent employees dedicated to the marijuana industry, including inspectors, licensing personnel, park rangers, attorneys, and tax auditors. The positions are paid for from the 3.5 percent special city tax, which netted the city $14 million last year for marijuana-related oversight. “That has been key,” she said. “All those people focused on marijuana are reporting back to us what they’ve seen, and that has been critical to forming policy.”

  • Get out of your silos
  • “The collaborative approach we developed at the beginning between departments has worked very well for us—we couldn’t have done it without that approach,” she said. “We could have made the choice to have 15 employees housed in one building, all focused on marijuana, but detached from the actual departments overseeing the facilities. If the fire department found this pesticide problem (in 2015, DFD inspectors alerted the city that they were noticing an uptick in the amount and variety of pesticides used on plants in grow houses) and had not communicated it to us, if they were doing these inspection in their own silo, they might have handled their part of the problem related to fire prevention, but public health might not have been able to address the consumer protection side of it and we wouldn’t have truly solved anything. The model gets us working together to address all angles of an issue. The Denver police chief, like most police officers, is no fan of marijuana, but he has said that one positive thing he has seen from this is that it has brought so many departments together to collaborate on problems. If a complaint comes in, we all work together.”

  • Control the size of the market
  • As of April 2 there were 1,143 active marijuana business licenses in Denver at 491 unique locations, Duplechian said. “That’s a lot for a city the size of Denver. The size of the market is something other cities may want to consider before they set up their regulatory structure. Our city council decided not to put a cap on the number of marijuana business licenses in 2013. Now there is a cap. City leaders need to consider if they want some control over the size of the market, especially if they’re adding retail on top of an already existing medical market. Other than supply and demand, I would suggest cities think about the regulatory burden. We have 58 people working on this, but a city without 491 locations may not need that.”

    JESSE ROMAN is associate editor of NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: CHRIS ROUSSAKIS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES