Antoine Irani said he walked into a north suburban smoke shop last fall and asked for something sweet to help stabilize his blood sugar. The 70-year-old diabetic was a regular at the shop, so he said he felt comfortable eating what the clerk sold him.
It was no ordinary treat. Irani bought a package of gummies containing THC, the compound that gives marijuana its high. The gummies left him disoriented and later landed him in the hospital.
Irani said he was tricked into buying the THC gummies, an accusation the store’s lawyer denies. MPR News isn't naming the smoke shop since the circumstances of who said what are in dispute and the store hasn’t faced any violations.
A deeper look at the incident, though, raises fresh questions about the lack of clarity around Minnesota’s fledgling THC products law and whether the state is ready to regulate cannabis.
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THC-infused drinks and gummies became legal on July 1. Demand is high for the products, yet basic questions around what’s illegal and what happens when complaints are made to authorities have largely gone unanswered.
Irani complained to local police, two state agencies and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration with little to show. Observers say Minnesota’s lack of licensing requirements and penalties has left regulators and police unsure over how to respond to complaints and violations.
“It just feels like this was a really bad situation and there's no recourse,” said Dena Sonbol, a professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law who helped Irani, a family friend, file the complaints. “There's no criminal recourse, there's really not any sort of administrative recourse or any sort of oversight or accountability.”
‘Wild West of edibles’
Minnesota’s regulations around THC-laced edibles and drinks are extremely loose. The bill was hastily passed at the end of the 2022 legislative session.
MPR News reported earlier this year that state officials worried the products could be unsafe and that the lack of licensing meant regulators didn't have a handle on who is selling products in the state.
As Gov. Tim Walz and state lawmakers move ahead with a bill that would legalize recreational cannabis for adults, state regulators and police have expressed worries about enforcement measures around all THC-related products. THC gummies regulation had been viewed as a test run for recreational cannabis.
“I’ve heard it referred to as the Wild West of edibles right now,” said Jeff Potts, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association. “I think law enforcement does feel kind of hamstrung in their ability to do any kind of regulatory oversight on the edibles.”
Democrats in the Minnesota House say they passed the edibles law because high potency hemp products were already being sold in Minnesota. Former DFL House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler said the edibles effort was aimed at putting some restrictions on products legalized under the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill.
In order to pass the law, Winkler’s party slipped the edibles language into a broader health policy bill. While they succeeded in getting the measure past skeptical Senate Republicans, Winkler admits that it never included a “robust regulatory structure.”
“Step one was to create a legal compliant marketplace,” Winkler said in an interview with MPR News. “And step two is to go ahead and clean up all the rest of the mess that those operators created with their interpretation of the [federal] farm bill.”
Winkler left the Legislature last year after a failed run for Hennepin County Attorney. He now chairs “Minnesota is Ready,” a group lobbying for the legalization of recreational marijuana. While he said Irani’s case had a bad outcome, he said the regulatory problem “didn’t get any worse” than it was before the edibles measure became law.
56 cases in 8 months
A look at Irani’s case highlights why some national observers describe Minnesota’s THC statute as poorly constructed and potentially dangerous given its lack of clarity.
Sonbol said regulators at the FDA told her the products are legal in Minnesota, so the issue fell under state jurisdiction.
The Minnesota Attorney General’s Office sought and received comments from the smoke shop and then closed the investigation, according to documents supplied by Sonbol. Citing privacy rules, a spokesperson for the office would not confirm to MPR News that it received the complaint.
Body camera footage of Irani’s interview with police is consistent with what he told MPR News. The officer who spoke to Irani suggested there was little he could do about Irani’s case.
“I can go over there and see what it is that they’re handing out, but I don’t know what else I can do for you,” Anoka County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Rick Kreyer tells Irani, adding that he didn’t have to take the edibles. “You’re at a tobacco shop, right? You shouldn’t be taking things that people give out of plastic bags,” he said. “In the future, maybe go to Walmart for your sweets, or a grocery store.”
Police closed the case saying it was a civil matter.
Months later, Irani remains vexed by what happened. He said he took as many as seven gummies to regulate his blood sugar. The attorney representing the smoke shop, Morgan Smith, disputes Irani’s allegations. In an interview, he said Irani was seeking the edibles and said Irani’s situation “is a problem he experienced in his own capacity.”
Currently, the only agency investigating Irani’s situation is the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy, which was given limited oversight authority by the Legislature but no additional money to investigate cases.
A board official emailed Sonbol in October saying the incident is under investigation but that it could take “several months or longer” given the board’s mounting caseloads.
Jill Phillips, the board’s executive director, declined to comment on Irani’s case because it’s still under active investigation. She said she hopes to release additional details about his case and others after a board meeting later this month.
Lack of resources is one factor in the delay. Phillips has repeatedly said that the board is trying to manage its chief responsibility of pharmacy oversight with its new role investigating THC-related complaints.
“We do a lot of prioritizing and taking a look at what needs the most immediate attention,” Phillips said at a December news conference.
Phillips declined to provide any specifics about all but one of the 56 THC-related cases that the board is investigating. The exception is a lawsuit against three related companies that produce Death by Gummy Bears.
‘Nobody really knows what you’re getting’
In the lawsuit, state officials allege that Northland Vapor sold products that contain THC at 20 times the level allowed by law.
Minnesota allows for the sale of individual servings that contain no more than 5 milligrams of THC derived from hemp and packages that contain no more than 50 milligrams of THC. Five milligrams will give first -time users a high, according to a 2017 federal study.
The Pharmacy Board asked a judge to direct the company to destroy the existing Death by Gummy Bears products, tell regulators where other products are sold in Minnesota and forbid their sale in the future.
An attorney for the company says there is no evidence of any harm arising from the proper use of Northland products.
Despite the concerns, Minnesota legislators are looking to broaden the cannabis market by allowing for the sale of recreational marijuana. The bill’s chief author says his goal is to create a centralized state agency that would oversee and regulate the sale of marijuana and lower dose THC-infused edibles and drinks.
“We think that there should be one comprehensive system of regulation and taxation that treats all of these substances in a similar fashion,” said Rep. Zach Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids.
Winkler said a centralized agency that has strong enforcement authority over all these products will mean those violating the law could be penalized.
Until then, Winkler and Potts agree that there’s limited oversight of the current marketplace and a lot of products aren’t compliant with state law.
Potts, with the state chiefs of police group, said he was not surprised to hear about what happened to Antoine Irani. “Nobody really knows what you’re getting when you go and buy edibles in Minnesota.”
Editor’s note (March 3, 2023): An earlier version of this story used “laced” to describe the infusion of THC in the edibles. It was changed to “containing” since laced can be pejorative.