Politics and Government

Minnesota cannabis boss quits after questions raised about her background

portrait of a woman
Erin DuPree is the first leader of Minnesota’s Office of Cannabis Management.
Courtesy photo

Updated 6:18 p.m.

Minnesota’s newly-named director of Minnesota’s marijuana regulatory agency left the job a day after being appointed by Gov. Tim Walz after an MPR News-APM Reports investigation found she ran a business that sold products that exceeded state limits on THC potency, owed money to former associates and accumulated  tens of thousands of dollars in tax liens.

Erin DuPree was appointed by Gov. Tim Walz on Thursday to head the new state Office of Cannabis Management, but a review of her background by MPR News and APM Reports raises serious questions about her record and how thoroughly the governor’s administration checked it before she got the job. 

A website for the Loonacy Cannabis Co., owned by DuPree, advertised products with a THC content far above what was legally allowed starting in July of 2022. It also advertised vape products containing THC, which were prohibited under the law. 

The Apple Valley strip mall storefront was cleared out on Friday. DuPree said she planned to sell the business to avoid conflicts when she moved to the regulatory side.

But what was sold there previously could be problematic. Videos posted to social media by DuPree show her advertising products that wouldn’t have been permitted, including vape pens and edibles that exceeded the low-dose potency limits. 

“I have never knowingly sold any noncompliant product, and when I became aware of them I removed the products from inventory,” DuPree said in a statement announcing her exit Friday evening. “Conducting lawful business has been an objective of my business career. However, it has become clear that I have become a distraction that would stand in the way of the important work that needs to be done.”

Walz didn’t comment directly on DuPree’s departure but said in a written statement Friday evening that the interim director of the office Charlene Briner would remain in an interim role.

“We have a responsibility to assure Minnesotans that this emerging market will be safe, lawful and well-regulated,” Walz said. “We're making progress toward implementing this work, including beginning the hiring process for nine key leadership positions and we will launch the rulemaking process in October.”

In a press release Thursday, the governor’s office praised DuPree for leading “continued research on hemp-derived and cannabis products while maintaining compliance with state laws and regulations."

Adam Wagner, who runs a company called Twin Cities THC, said it didn’t make sense that someone appointed to regulate and enforce standards for legal marijuana appeared to have not followed state law for hemp-derived THC products.

“My biggest concern with this is that it completely loses trust in who that person is in the position that they're in,” Wagner said. “And there's visual proof of it, then it puts a big wrench into who's in that seat.”

Some retailers have been found to sell products that exceeded the THC standards set by the state. In one instance, the state is suing a retailer for selling products that contained 10 times the amount of THC allowed under state law.

MPR News attempted to reach DuPree at multiple phone numbers and sent her emails Friday, which were not returned. Questions posed to the Walz administration about the concerns and vetting ahead of her selection were acknowledged, but no response was given within the initial hours.

When Walz picked DuPree, the statement he issued called her an “outstanding choice. Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan also cited her “outstanding business acumen.”

But records and internet postings reviewed by MPR News Friday found irregularities in DuPree’s past. At least two people have won court judgments against her for unpaid wages or for work she failed to perform.

One of them, Lois Ziolkowski, described the woman she knew as Erin Wambach as “dishonest” and said she was flabbergasted to learn she had been named to a high government position.

Ziolkowski is out more than $2,500 for a kitchen remodeling project that DuPree consulted on. She won a judgment in conciliation court in 2021 but said that DuPree has still failed to pay up.

“It kind of scares me what she would do in that position,” Ziolkowski, 67, said. “She’s not trustworthy.”

Another person who sued is Teri Smith, a fitness trainer employed at a failed wellness business run by Erin Wambach-Holgate, as she was known at the time. Smith said Friday she and other employees sometimes went without pay. Smith won a $10,000 judgment in 2013. She still hasn’t been paid.  

“She’s a really big talker. She sounds good when saying it, but when you call her out on anything you better be aware that you might end up getting bit,” Smith said. “The snake will come out.”

Smith was also surprised to learn DuPree had been awarded a high-powered position in state government.

“I can't trust her,” she said. “I would not support her in any type of role where she's in charge of people's money and lives.”

Records from the Washington County Recorder's Office show that six liens for unpaid taxes totaling more than $115,000 were filed against DuPree and her cleaning business between 2014 and 2017 by the IRS and Minnesota Department of Revenue. 

Of that, about $71,000 appears to remain outstanding. The IRS released two liens against her in April 2023 totaling almost $45,000, indicating that portion of the debt, some of which stemmed from taxes owed as far back to 2011, was satisfied.