Minnesota now must hire top regulators for both its medical and recreational marijuana industries after the state's medical cannabis director resigned this week.
Chris Tholkes, who's led the Office of Medical Cannabis within the state Department of Health since 2019, said Monday she has stepped down to take a job as the city of Minneapolis' director of health operations. Her last day with the state will be Friday, according to a Health Department spokesperson.
"This role has been like nothing else I've experienced. I've had the great honor to work with dedicated public servants, passionate and invested stakeholders, and creative and committed legislators to expand the medical program and craft an adult use [cannabis] law," Tholkes said in a statement to the Star Tribune. "Cannabis regulatory work is intense and after 5 years of working under a microscope and at a breakneck pace, the time is right for me to make a change."
Tholkes' departure comes as the state's Health Department manages not just medical cannabis but the state's low-dose, hemp-derived THC edible and drink market. As of last week, more than 2,800 businesses have registered with the state to manufacture and/or sell hemp-derived cannabis products in Minnesota. That includes liquor stores, hemp shops and breweries.
Since this summer, the Health Department has had authority to inspect products and businesses to ensure they are complying with dosage limits, testing requirements and labeling laws, among other issues.
"All of this is really complicated and difficult and now it just got more difficult for the people left behind at the state, because they don't have the wisdom and experience of Chris Tholkes anymore," said Jason Tarasek, a Minnesota cannabis attorney with Vicente LLP, one of the nation's top cannabis law firms.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Tim Walz said Monday that Alex Hooper will take over as Minnesota's interim medical cannabis director. Hooper is currently the assistant director of the state health department's Health Regulation Division. He previously worked for the Arkansas Department of Health in its medical marijuana section.
Minnesota also still needs to hire a permanent director for its new Office of Cannabis Management, which will oversee the creation and regulation of the state's recreational marijuana industry. Walz's first pick for the job, a cannabis entrepreneur named Erin DuPree, resigned in late September one day after she was appointed amid reports that she sold illegal products at her hemp store.
After the debacle, Walz pledged to hire a seasoned regulator for the job. But he hasn't interviewed any other candidates since, according to his public schedules.
State government veteran Charlene Briner continues to lead the fledgling Office of Cannabis Management on an interim basis, saying in a recent interview she expects to be there through early 2024.
The Office of Cannabis Management last week added a new implementation chief regulatory officer, Max Zappia, who will help design and launch the agency's regulatory structure. Zappia has been temporarily reassigned to the cannabis regulatory role from his work as the Department of Commerce's deputy commissioner of financial institutions.
The state is hoping for retail dispensaries to open by early 2025.
Some in Minnesota's cannabis industry had hoped for Tholkes to lead the Office of Cannabis Management. Tholkes is one of Minnesota's most experienced cannabis regulators, contributing to policy discussions about medical cannabis, hemp and the state's legalization of recreational marijuana. She serves as treasurer of the national Cannabis Regulators Association.
As the city of Minneapolis' director of Health Operations — a new position approved earlier this year — Tholkes will lead "the development and implementation of City policy, goals, and strategic planning as it relates to the Health Department," according to the job description.
"I'm looking forward to contributing to the community I live in and helping the people of our city stay safe and healthy," Tholkes said in a statement provided by the city.
Staff writers Brooks Johnson and Dave Orrick contributed to this report.