In defiance of drug charges that could put him behind bars for more than 20 years, Duluth head shop owner Jim Carlson will continue marketing a synthetic version of marijuana that he considers legal, his attorney said Tuesday.
Carlson and three co-workers at Last Place on Earth, his notorious store in Duluth, were criminally charged in a sweeping 54-count federal indictment made public Tuesday.
"I am confident this indictment is a major step in reducing the supply of dangerous designer drugs to the region," Duluth Police Chief Gordon Ramsay said in a statement.
The federal charges come more than a year after local authorities first identified Carlson's store as a key source of fake pot and other synthetic drugs in Minnesota, leading to well-publicized raids that netted hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and inventory. A Star Tribune investigation showed at least two products sold at the store in 2011 contained chemicals that mimic illegal drugs.
The increasing popularity of synthetic drugs has alarmed authorities, who blame the drugs for thousands of calls to poison control centers and more than 20 deaths in the United States, including at least two in Minnesota.
Charges: False names used
In the indictment, federal authorities claim Carlson organized a criminal conspiracy that allowed him to sell dangerous drugs to the public by "misbranding" the products as herbal incense, bath salts, glass cleaner and other "false and misleading" names.
The drugs also were labeled "not for human consumption," when in fact people were buying the products to obtain the kind of effects yielded by controlled substances such as marijuana, according to the indictment. Authorities said lab tests show products sold at Last Place on Earth contain a variety of substances that have been banned by federal lawmakers as "analogues" to illegal drugs.
The indictment also charged Carlson's girlfriend and business partner, Lava Haugen, as well as Carlson's son, Joseph Gellerman, and another clerk, Jamie Paul Anderson.
The alleged conspiracy began in March 2010, when Carlson first began purchasing synthetic drugs in bulk from suppliers in California, according to the indictment. After reviewing Carlson's bank records, authorities documented a total of nearly $2 million in wholesale purchases from companies in Arizona, California, Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Carlson and his employees repackaged the drugs for retail sale, but they failed to accurately identify the contents or adequately warn consumers against potential health risks as required by law, according to the indictment. The products were sold under such names as DOA, Armageddon, Role-X Watch Cleaner and Molly's Tickle Talc.
If convicted, the defendants face up to 20 years for violating each count of the federal Controlled Substances Act. In addition, Carlson faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison for allegedly engaging in monetary transactions with property derived from unlawful activity.
The defendants will be arraigned in federal court Friday. Carlson will plead not guilty to all charges, said his attorney, Randall Tigue.
"In many ways, it's really an outrageous case," Tigue said. "The substances were not illegal at the time he sold them. They made up a theory after the fact."
Tigue said Last Place on Earth temporarily stopped selling "herbal incense" products, also known as fake pot, but he said the products should be available again within a day or two. Tigue declined to say whether Carlson will change suppliers.
"Everything he sells is going to be a legal product," Tigue said.
Tigue acknowledged, however, that Carlson has not done his own testing of the products. He said the federal analogue law is "unconstitutionally vague" because it requires retailers to possess "the knowledge of an organic chemist."
Carlson didn't return calls seeking comment. In previous interviews, Carlson has challenged the government's right to crack down on synthetic drugs, and said he would continue selling the suspect products no matter how many times authorities raided his store. He said sales at Last Place on Earth, expected to reach $6 million last year, tripled after he began selling synthetic drugs in 2009.
"If I get busted, I would demand a jury trial," Carlson told the Star Tribune in 2011. "I'm sick and tired of [the government] ... trying to tell people everything they can and can't do."
Jeffrey Meitrodt • 612-673-4132