Gov. Tim Walz said Saturday that he takes responsibility for failing to properly vet his first pick for the state's new Office of Cannabis Management, an embarrassing stumble as Minnesota readies its legal marijuana market.
Erin DuPree, a self-described cannabis entrepreneur who owned a hemp shop, stepped aside Friday, a day after the DFL governor named her head of the cannabis regulatory agency. It came a few hours after a Star Tribune report revealed she sold illegal products at her hemp store.
"One of the responsibilities, and I take it and the buck stops with me, is the appointments of literally thousands of people," Walz said Saturday at a festival organized by the news website MinnPost. "In this case, the process did not work and we got this wrong."
DuPree was to begin the job Oct. 2 with a salary of about $151,000.
Publicly, DuPree accepted some accountability by stepping aside and saying she would be a "distraction" if she took the role.
Privately, DuPree fumed on her personal Facebook page about the Star Tribune's coverage and an MPR story that dug into her troubled financial history.
"If you want to be an agent of change, watch out — you will be criticized for being human," she wrote. "I wasn't the hero in everyone's story."
DuPree had no government experience, and her résumé did not seem to match many of the expected qualifications sought for the role. The administration was blindsided by reports of her federal liens, illegal product sales and past lawsuits filed against her.
Walz said Saturday the episode was "not the finest hour."
"You're also picking someone who's going to not only run an agency, but they're a regulator, he said. "And people certainly expect that you follow the rules when you're going to do that."
Charlene Briner, a state government veteran, will continue to lead the Office of Cannabis Management in the interim. The agency is about to kick off a rulemaking process that is required before licenses can be issued to marijuana growers, processors and retailers. Dispensaries are expected to open in early 2025.
"We have an ambitious timeline to stand up the agency to ensure a safe, reliable regulated cannabis industry for Minnesotans, and we are on track to meet it," Briner said Saturday.
State leaders haven't yet decided whether they will reopen their search for a cannabis director or revisit the roughly 150 previous applicants.
Briner said the agency is working to avoid a repeat of this experience for the next director.
"It's clear that something didn't work the way it should have," she said. "We are already working to identify and eliminate the gaps and tighten the process moving forward."
Walz said he plans to ask his team why this happened.
The governor said he's made around 2,700 appointments since taking office, from judges and state board and commission members to senior cabinet officials. Appointees are screened and face background checks, he said.
"I was under the impression that the system, up till this point, 2,699 times, had worked right. It didn't this time," Walz said.
In July, Walz rescinded an appointment that he'd made to a state broadband task force after the Star Tribune questioned his office about the appointee's past domestic abuse allegations.
Candidates who applied to be director of the Office of Cannabis Management went through multiple rounds of interviews with a panel of various state officials before the pool was narrowed down to a group of finalists.
The finalists were then handed off to the governor's office, which coordinated checks of their backgrounds, references and potential conflicts of interest. After those checks were complete, the finalists interviewed with the governor.
Walz said the public deserves to know what went wrong.
"I own this one," Walz said. "We'll get the right person in there."
Knowing the rules
Marijuana regulation is a complex issue with conflicting federal and state laws.
Michele Glinn, the chief science officer at Michigan's leading cannabis testing firm, told the Star Tribune this spring that cannabis regulators need to have experience with the issues they'll be enforcing.
"You need people who have a scientific background, as well as a legal and regulatory background," she said.
In Minnesota, the rules have been widely reported since the state first regulated THC last year. To sell hemp-derived THC, it has to be in food or drink in small doses. Vapes and buds were limited to containing 0.3% of any THC starting in July 2022 and then outright banned this summer.
Some of the vape cartridges DuPree sold at her Apple Valley hemp store, Loonacy Cannabis, were noncompliant the entire time her store was open, including one featured in a TikTok video.
"When this was made, they were legal," DuPree wrote on Facebook about the video. They were not.
She also advertised on social media edible products that contained more THC than what's legally allowed.
The law only punishes those who knowingly sell noncompliant products.
DuPree said in her Facebook post that she took the cannabis director job to help businesses navigate the complexities of the law.
"There should never be products on the shelf that can do real harm to people," she wrote. "I took this position to fix that problem and prevent crap like this from happening in the future."
Loonacy was selling products with THC-P, an extremely potent cannabinoid that has caused reports of illnesses lasting days, according to lab test results the shop shared on its website.
A lack of knowledge from retailers, and a lack of state enforcement, has kept noncompliant products on shelves, especially at smoke shops.
The Minnesota Department of Health recently assumed control over hemp-derived edibles and is requiring retailers and manufacturers to register by Oct. 1 to continue selling THC products.