Livwell employees check buds on multiple marijuana plants before harvesting them on Aug. 13, 2015 at the growing facility in Denver. (Callaghan O'Hare, The Denver Post)

Denver ethics board nixes pot inspectors’ consulting idea

City employees asked for permission to do marijuana consulting work outside Denver, but ethics board says no

Denver city inspectors for marijuana licensing asked the Board of Ethics for its blessing to work as paid consultants to the cannabis industry elsewhere.

In a resounding “No” this week, the board balked. Its advisory opinion cites concerns about potential conflicts of interest and bad appearances, saying such work would violate the city’s Code of Ethics.

When the board discussed the inspectors’ request for an ethics opinion last week — before issuing its formal guidance Tuesday — chairman Brian Spano spoke more plainly.

“I just think it’s too close a call to be a paid consultant in the industry you’re regulating for the city,” Spano said. That would be true, he added, even if potential clients aimed to open businesses outside Denver or even Colorado.

The inspectors’ request reflects some remaining uncertainty as Denver and Colorado traverse the new landscape of legal recreational marijuana.

Denver has drawn praise for its efforts to regulate retail marijuana. Both government officials and entrepreneurs in other states that have followed suit more recently have been looking to learn from the city’s experience.

Jered P. Garcia, the chief business license inspector for Denver’s Department of Excise and Licenses, said in his Sept. 9 request for the ethics opinion that his staff members “have been approached on several occasions to do consulting for the marijuana industry.”

But they had not yet done so while they waited for a green light.

The state has hammered out stronger rules for its Marijuana Enforcement Division employees, who sometimes have gone on to work in the fast-growing industry. Legislation passed earlier this year soon will bar any work or consulting for the marijuana industry until six months after an employee has left his or her state job.

Denver has a more general — and narrower — rule in its Code of Ethics. It requires a six-month cooling-off period for all employees when they would be taking advantage in a new job of matters over which they took direct official action while working for the city.

The board decided that for the inspectors, the ethics code also would bar moonlighting as a consultant.

“The Board of Ethics believes that the proposed engagement of employees of the Department of Excise & Licenses to serve as paid outside consultants to the marijuana industry, which it is charged with authority to regulate, creates a conflict of interest and an appearance of impropriety,” the advisory opinion states.

It continues: “While we recognize that the request proposes that department employees would only consult with businesses or individuals that do not currently conduct marijuana-related operations within the City and County of Denver, it is highly unlikely that this distinction could be maintained or enforced in the future.”

Denver’s Office of Marijuana Policy has invited local government officials from across the country to Denver in early November to learn about the city’s approach during a symposium that’s billed as the first of its kind.

Such events — as well as seminars for businesses — are a more appropriate way than paid consulting for the city and the licensing department to educate interested parties, the ethics opinion says.

Jon Murray: 303-954-1405, jmurray@denverpost.com or @JonMurray

This story was first published on DenverPost.com