Walz shifts gears on Minnesota cannabis office leader

a man speaks at a U of M podium
Gov. Tim Walz speaks at an event on the University of Minnesota campus Tuesday to celebrate the construction of a new chemistry lab building.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

After a major misfire with his first appointment, Gov. Tim Walz shifted focus Tuesday to find a Minnesota marijuana market oversight official who has regulatory experience rather than coming from within the cannabis industry. 

Walz resumed his search for somebody to lead the new Office of Cannabis Management after initial appointee Erin DuPree resigned soon after she was announced. The DFL governor said his prior interest in having an insider as director was misplaced.

“We’re going to hire a regulator in this,” Walz said after an event to highlight a new chemistry building at the University of Minnesota. “And I think that was probably the way the focus should have been in the beginning. I've learned that lesson now. And that's what we'll do.”

DuPree faced scrutiny over her business past, including indications she advertised noncompliant THC products derived from hemp at a CBD store she ran and evidence of financial issues connected to other companies she started.

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She has said she stepped down to avoid becoming a distraction, but she denied knowingly stocking unauthorized products. She said there were extenuating circumstances around the financial woes, but hasn’t elaborated.

Walz acknowledged the vetting was flawed and is seeking a recounting of how critical information didn’t surface before the selection. DuPree emerged from a field of 150 applicants and a multi-layered interview process.

Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, voted against legalization of adult-use marijuana. He said the director should have a regulatory or law enforcement background.

“This is a huge process, and we need someone who isn’t learning as they go, but can come forward with proven experience and leadership to ensure safety and compliance are the top priorities,” Johnson said in a written statement. 

One of the marijuana law’s sponsors, DFL Rep. Zack Stephenson of Coon Rapids, appeared Tuesday at a cannabis law forum hosted by the law firm Winthrop and Weinstine. He said efforts to stand up the legal marijuana market won’t be sidetracked by the failed appointment ordeal.

“This was certainly a setback, but I think we can be pleased it was acknowledged as a setback, and corrective action was taken quickly,” he said. “We didn't have to linger with this for a long time.”

Chris Tholkes, who currently directs the Office of Medical Cannabis in Minnesota, joined Stephenson on the panel and declined to say if she’ll apply for the reopened position.

“If you have that solid regulatory framework in the office, the cannabis industry piece can be learned by the director,” she said. “And that director should know what their strengths are and what their weaknesses are and be able to surround themselves with folks that fill those gaps for them.”

Walz gave no timeline for making another selection, saying getting the pick right is more important than speed. He said interim leadership is moving ahead with setting up the new cannabis oversight office. 

“A lot of folks wanted to see legalization. But there's a lot of folks that are deeply concerned about if you don't get this right, are you making sure the wrong people don't have their hands in this? I understand that concern,” Walz said. “So my take on this is we need to move with a sense of urgency, but I am more concerned with — as we always have been — getting the right people on the right seat on the bus, rather than how quickly we get them on the bus.”