Bill in Minnesota Legislature targets synthetic drugs’ marketing

Peter Passi, Duluth News Tribune
Erik Simonson
Erik Simonson

State Rep. Erik Simonson has introduced a bill to deal with synthetic drugs that’s modeled on apparently successful legislation enacted in Illinois and Indiana.

The Duluth Democrat’s bill would take aim not only at specific chemical compounds but at products that are marketed in a way that a reasonable person would recognize they are

intended to mimic the effects of federally controlled narcotics.

A similar law, combined with aggressive outreach and enforcement, has proven effective in Illinois, according Carol Deslauriers, operations manager for the Illinois Poison Center.

As in Minnesota, dealers in Illinois disguised synthetic drugs in misleading packaging, labeling them as “not for human consumption” to pass them off as legal, said Maura Possley, a press secretary for Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

“Every time a particular substance was banned, manufacturers quickly reformulated these toxic substances to circumvent the new prohibition,” Possley said.

“What this new law provides is a clear and strong prohibition on these sales that synthetics manufacturers cannot circumvent with some newly concocted recipe or modified label.”

Possley said the new statute cracks down on retail sales by classifying as illegal any chemical that’s sold to be taken as a drug, regardless of what it’s called or how it’s labeled.

Deslauriers said the poison center saw “a significant drop” in the number of cases of people suffering adverse effects from the use of synthetic drugs as the new law kicked in. In the summer and fall of 2011, before the crackdown, the center received an average of about 50 calls per month from people who had consumed synthetic drugs. Since then, calls involving bath salts have been cut more than in half and calls involving synthetic marijuana are down to one or two a month, she said.

Duluth’s dilemma

Duluth Police Chief Gordon Ramsay said his officers and other emergency responders have been left to deal with increasingly disturbed users of synthetic drugs. He described recent incidents including a man who was running naked down Mesaba Avenue, another individual who was gnawing at his own arm and a man who had removed his eye using a fork.

Ramsay said products being sold locally seem to be growing ever more potent. Of late, he said officers have noted the proliferation of a product marketed as Kryptonite but known on the street as “meth on crack.”

Dr. Scott Wolff, a St. Luke’s emergency room physician, testified in St. Paul recently that he regularly sees five to 10 people with adverse reactions to synthetic drugs admitted each day.

Dr. Jonathan Shultz, who also works in St. Luke’s emergency room, said he has seen a surge in the number of synthetic drug cases in the last 18 months, many involving increasingly troubled individuals.

“In the last three months or so, we’ve seen more impressive cases of patients who have used synthetic drugs presenting with more impressive symptoms, including more profound and acute agitation and increasingly self-injurious behaviors,” he said.

Shultz said the patients often require physical restraints and heavy chemical sedation. The powerful sedatives can result in temporary paralysis, sometimes necessitating that individuals be hooked up to breathing machines in an intensive care unit until they regain lucid consciousness, sometimes days later.

“Many of these people aren’t insured, and an ICU visit runs about $10,000 to $12,000 a day. So it’s having a large impact on our local hospitals’ bottom lines,” Ramsay told members of the Greater Downtown Council at a Wednesday morning forum.

Tough spot

Ramsay said Duluth’s problems with synthetic drugs are uniquely challenging because of the volume of products being sold at the downtown head shop Last Place on Earth.

“No one else has what we have on Superior Street, where they’re openly thumbing their nose at the laws,” he said.

Jim Carlson, the owner of Last Place on Earth, contends that he is not breaking the law and sells no products that contain legally banned chemical compounds. He said his business is one of 400 across the state selling synthetic products, yet he has been singled out for federal prosecution in a case still awaiting trial.

The city also has filed a nuisance suit against his shop, claiming that it is causing harm to the community as a whole. While that case remains in the courts, Carlson has been required by court order to employ two uniformed police officers to maintain order on the street outside his building at a cost of about $34,000 per month.

As for Ramsay’s concerns about Kryptonite, Carlson said he hasn’t carried the product for about a year now — not because he considers it particularly dangerous but because it wasn’t selling as well as other synthetics. Carlson said he has chosen not to sell some other products including bath salts and salvia because he thought they had undesirable effects on customers.

Best bet

Simonson said that in order for his bill to survive, it will need to receive a hearing in front of the Public Safety, Finance and Policy Committee by Friday, and he has been working hard to move it along.

“I think it has a great chance of passing, if I can just get a hearing before the end of the week,” he said.

Minnesota’s previous efforts to regulate synthetic drugs by singling out particular chemical compounds have fallen short, and Simonson said his bill would be the first to get to the intent of the seller.

“There’s no guarantee they won’t find another way to get around this, too, but it’s another angle for us to try to get at the problem,” he said.

Deslauriers said passing the law will be just the first step, crediting Illinois’ success to partnerships between the attorney general’s office, law enforcement agencies and many other players, including the Illinois Poison Center.

“They did more than sign a law,” she said. “It took a lot more work than that.”

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