Synthetic drug ban has buyers racing

  • Article by: LARRY OAKES and PAM LOUWAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 8, 2011 - 10:01 AM

Retailers unsuccessfully tried to block law on substances that mimic pot and LSD from taking effect.

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Business was brisk at the Last Place on Earth in Duluth before the state ban on synthetic drugs went into effect.

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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While users scrambled on Thursday to stock up on synthetic drugs that became illegal at midnight, a state judge refused to stop Minnesota's new drug ban from going into effect.

Meanwhile, at a Duluth head shop called Last Place On Earth, owner Jim Carlson unveiled a new blend of synthetic pot he claims won't fall under the ban and will let him continue sales on Friday.

The new product, made by a company called Armageddon Inc., comes in a black foil packet with a drawing of an orange mushroom cloud and a prominent sticker that says "Minnesota Compliant."

"The package has our store's corporate logo right on it," Carlson said proudly.

Carlson is one of the three retailers across the state who unsuccessfully tried to stop the ban from going into effect. The merchants vow to continue their fight to overturn the restrictions, which also cover the so-called research chemical blamed for a mass overdose in Blaine this spring that killed a 19-year-old.

The ban outlaws substances "substantially similar" in chemical structure and pharmacological effects to illegal drugs like marijuana and LSD. The retailers claim the statute is so vague and so broad that consumers and merchants won't know if they are breaking the law.

To get around a federal law similar to Minnesota's ban, the targeted products are typically labeled "not for human consumption." They are sold over the Internet and in such retail outlets as tobacco shops and music stores. In many cases, the products are described as bath salts or herbal incense and are sold in tiny foil packets that often cost $10 to $50.

Hennepin County District Judge William Howard declined on Thursday to issue a temporary restraining order to stop the law from taking effect. He said that it is too soon to decide whether the new law is too vague because no charges have been filed under it and that the court has no evidence involving particular substances.

Attorney Marc Kurzman, who represents the stores, said his clients hope to convince the judge to bring the case to trial within weeks. "People can still buy all this stuff on the Internet," Carlson said. "All the ban does is prevents the cities and state from getting the tax revenue. Everything from food to alcohol hurts people if they abuse it. We should have learned from Prohibition that bans don't work."

The other retailers challenging the ban are: Down in the Valley, with stores in Golden Valley, Maple Grove and Crystal, and Disc and Tape, with stores in Moorhead, East Grand Forks and Waite Park.

Carlson's store in Duluth buzzed with activity on Thursday as customers drove from as far as Brainerd and lined up a dozen deep to stock up on "D.O.A.," "No Name," and other so-called synthetic drugs.

Robert Nilsson, a Duluth tattoo artist, bought $30 worth of synthetic pot. He said he doesn't smoke it to get high but because he suffers from "mental issues" such as anxiety. He said the designer weed calms him. "I like that it's been legal, and I don't want to be a criminal," said Nilsson, 28.

While Carlson hopes to keep one step ahead of the law by finding new products, other retailers are taking a more cautious approach. "We can't take the risk," said Wally Sakallah, owner of the Hideaway, a shop that sells glass pipes and other paraphernalia in Minneapolis' Dinkytown neighborhood.

Sakallah said distributors have given him samples of synthetics that they claim would fall outside the ban, but he is worried that he might wind up with products that aren't really legal. Slapping a packet of "herbal smoking blend" called "King Tut" on the counter, Sakallah declared, "I'm not going to risk my business for something like this."

Chemists will have to do more than "minor tinkering" to come up with new products that aren't covered by the law, according to Cody Wiberg, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy. Wiberg helped draft the law banning "synthetic cannabinoids" and other so-called designer drugs.

Wiberg said the ban was designed to cover so-called "analogs," or products that have been slightly altered in an attempt to skirt the ban.

loakes@startribune.com plouwagie • 612-673-7102

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