Ashley Kilroy helped craft Denver's mariijuana policies before she became director of the city's Department of Excise and Licenses. (Provided by Ashley Kilroy)

Other Roots: Denver’s unlikely pot czar Ashley Kilroy now leads the way internationally

Editor’s note: In our Other Roots series, we share the stories of the underrepresented individuals in and around the marijuana movement — women, ethnic minorities and others whose voices aren’t as prevalent in the conversation surrounding legalization. If you’d like to suggest an individual to the Other Roots team — an activist, a budtender, a regulator, an executive — give us a jingle.

Ashley Kilroy, the “pot czar” of Denver, has heard all the jokes about looking quite unlike a pothead. “I should have worn my tie-dyed shirt,” she said when she showed up for her interview with The Cannabist.

In fact, the petite blonde lawyer, a former safety manager and mother of three, turned to Wikipedia to research terms like “dab” and “hash oil” when the Mayor appointed her executive director of marijuana policy in late 2013. Now cannabis terminology rolls off her tongue as she recounts experiences in the field; meetings with regulators from France, Germany, Canada, Caribbean nations and all over the U.S.; and leading conferences for those hoping to follow Denver’s lead in regulating legalized marijuana.

The first-ever social experiment presented some unexpected challenges. Working across agencies, Kilroy is immersed in safety issues involving the fire department, the hazardous materials unit, departments of excise and licensing, zoning, electrical inspectors, environmental health, food safety, waste disposal and more. For example, she says, hash oil put in food must be refrigerated, and requirements involve several agencies: Hash oil machines must be inspected to assure no gases escape and exhaust systems are in place. OSHA has special rules for explosion-proof rooms and wiring. In the case of pot brownies, zoning has certain requirements for commercial kitchens but other rules for heavy industrial kitchens. It’s complicated.

“Our fire department lectures all over the country,” she said. Our whole team has been doing consulting… It’s been like dog years. I say working in marijuana, one year equals seven human years.”

Kilroy is reserved when appraising the overall effect of legalization in Colorado. “It’s truly too early to tell,” she said, noting that until recently, data on youth use, crime and hospital admissions haven’t been tracked with specific attention to marijuana.

And she won’t venture a prediction for nationwide legalization, saying only that Millennials are driving the change toward acceptance. “It’s quickly evolving,” she said, citing the recent Pew study concluding that 57 percent of U.S. adults believe marijuana use should be legal.

Do you partake?

I did 25 years ago. Not now.

What’s the future of her office?

Long-term we don’t need to run policy out of the Mayor’s office. But right now, while the world is watching… Our immediate priority was safety. Next, do we need to tweak some laws? I’m in close contact with the Governor’s office as well.

What’s the biggest misconception about legalized weed?

That it’s a tax windfall. While it’s on track to be a $1 billion a year industry, that’s part of the $330 billion state GDP. While 40 percent of the licensees are in Denver, it accounts for only 2.3 percent of tax revenues to the city.

What are your current priorities?

We’re placing more emphasis on our youth outreach plan. More funding in 2017 will result in a new (educational) campaign to kids. We know education works.

What would your mother say about your profession?

On New Year’s Day 2014 I was on CNN. The TV was on at a family gathering in New Orleans (Kilroy’s hometown) and an elderly family friend gasped, “Do her parents know?” (Kilroy’s parents have passed on.)

What’s been most surprising about marijuana legalization?

The international interest, hype and exaggeration. Reporters initially thought they’d see people smoking on every block. The key is, we’re not all about weed in Denver.

What quality do you dislike in yourself?

Sometimes I talk too much and don’t listen.

What quality do you dislike in others?

Same thing. I don’t like being talked at.

What’s your greatest extravagance?

Buying art. (Kilroy was an art history major before going to law school at Tulane.) Every two years my husband and I buy a painting, mostly by Colorado artists.

What’s an overrated virtue?


When and where were you happiest?

Now. I’ve loved each stage of life. It gets better and better. (Married in 1991, the couple has two girls in college, one at home.)

What talent would you like to have?

I wish I could sing. I try!

If you could come back as any person or thing what would that be?

I’d be in musical theater.

If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would you choose?

(Retired Supreme Court Justice) Sandra Day O’Connor. I spent an hour with her in Phoenix at a conference on marijuana at the O’Connor Institute. As a lawyer, I would love to have had more time.

What’s your greatest regret?

(With apologies to Sinatra…) “Regrets, I have a few, but then again, too few to mention.”

Any serious hobbies?

I rollerblade and ice skate. I’m really fast but I can’t stop.

Do you have a favorite food?

I love olives and capers.

Your motto?
The Mayor’s motto: “Right, not fast.”