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DULUTH - Every morning, dozens of customers line up outside the doors of Last Place on Earth so they can buy fake pot and other synthetic drugs as soon as the store opens at 10 a.m.
They are drawn to this old brick building because they know the head shop is one of the last places in Minnesota that openly sells the sometimes deadly substances despite a July 1 ban on synthetic drugs.
Some come from the Twin Cities, according to owner Jim Carlson. Others travel even farther. On Friday, a trucker from Grand Rapids, Minn., said he started making the 80-mile drive to Carlson's store every three weeks because his neighborhood smoke shop stopped selling "herbal incense."
Duluth resident Heidi Middleton, who was first in line, said she comes almost every day. "If I don't have weed in my system, I go into convulsions and throw up," said Middleton, 38. "It mellows me out."
Any day now, Carlson predicts, police will raid the shop he's owned for 29 years and arrest him. But every day that doesn't happen puts another $16,000 or so in his till, Carlson estimates. That means the small, crowded shop -- which also sells sex toys, bongs and an array of other vice accessories -- is hauling in almost $6 million a year from synthetic marijuana and stimulants.
"Our sales are just insane," Carlson recently told the Star Tribune. "If anything it's gotten stronger with a lot of my competition getting out of it, nervous, not knowing what's going on."
Local officials, who have tried in vain for years to force Carlson to stop selling drug-related merchandise, think the retailer has gone way too far this time.
"He flaunts and he taunts, and I think it's absolutely disgusting how you can sell a product to people that damages users and innocent bystanders," Duluth City Council Member Todd Fedora said.
Last year, Fedora spearheaded an effort to make Duluth the first city in the state to ban synthetic pot. But the city stopped trying to enforce the ordinance after Carlson threatened to hold the city responsible for his economic losses in a federal lawsuit that claimed the rule was unconstitutionally broad.
Dean Baltes, who owns a printing business next to the head shop, said he's sick of the "unsavory crowd" that gathers outside Carlson's store. He said his customers are reluctant to walk this "gantlet."
"We're not on speaking terms," said Baltes, who used to consider Carlson a good neighbor. "He's addicted to the money."
Duluth Police Chief Gordon Ramsay said Carlson is on his radar. "We're aware of the problem and are working on it," Ramsay told the Star Tribune Thursday.
Carlson, whose business has tripled since he started selling synthetic drugs two years ago, said he's willing to risk arrest for several reasons: The money is so good, and he believes banning drugs doesn't work and infringes on people's rights.
He also claims to have taken steps to make sure his products don't violate the state's new ban, though the results of a test conducted for the Star Tribune showed that some of his synthetic pot contained a chemical specifically outlawed in Minnesota. Carlson said his supplier made a mistake and has since switched to a legal formula.
"If I get busted, I would demand a jury trial," said Carlson, who complained Monday to the City Council that police were harassing customers in front of his store. "I'm sick and tired of all the government's bullshit and trying to tell people everything they can and can't do."
Carlson, 54, grew up in St. Paul. His father, Robert Carlson, owned several bookstores in the state, including some that sold pornography. The elder Carlson was prosecuted several times on obscenity charges, but most of the cases were thrown out on constitutional grounds, teaching the younger Carlson the importance of hiring a good lawyer.
"His dad had the same kind of gutsy attitude Jim has," said longtime entertainment attorney Randall Tigue, who has represented Jim Carlson in several civil and criminal legal battles.
The elder Carlson also started what his son claims was the first head shop in Minnesota -- Three-Acre Wood in St. Paul. Carlson said his dad wasn't much of a businessman. When the IRS seized the contents of his father's last store, in Duluth, the younger Carlson arranged to buy the fixtures and started his own head shop in 1982. He borrowed the name from a TV commercial for a credit card that supposedly was good even at the Last Place on Earth.
The city tried to stop him from selling a variety of vice products: bongs, pipes, nitrous oxide and "poppers" -- alkyl nitrites users inhale to get high and boost sexual pleasure. But each time Carlson triumphed, at one point forcing the city to pay him for lost business when police seized his pipes. Carlson has yet to garner a single criminal conviction -- not even a speeding ticket, state court records show.
A futile war
Carlson said the vice business has made him a rich man. He and his 31-year-old girlfriend, Lava Haugen, recently upgraded to an executive-style riverfront home with a guesthouse. He also has an 80-acre deer-hunting retreat near Grand Rapids, a year-round fishing retreat on Lake of the Woods, and a five-bedroom, oceanfront vacation home in Cozumel, Mexico.
Carlson calls his Mexican property "the house that urine-cleaner built," a reference to the $40 kits he sells that promise to "detoxify" marijuana users and others in order to pass a drug test. He has sold thousands of the kits.
He said the current emphasis on drug testing by probation departments and employers helped fuel the synthetic marijuana boom, as droves of pot users sought an alternative that wouldn't show up on traditional drug tests.
He readily concedes that substance abuse and addiction are devastating. He ticks off his own examples: His father and a son have alcohol problems, his daughter was treated for heroin addiction and his brother died at 40 from alcoholism. His own junk food addiction caused him to balloon to 380 pounds before he had stomach surgery, changed his habits and got down to 200 pounds.
But Carlson argues that prohibition showed it is futile to outlaw what people put in their bodies. "We've got the highest incarceration rate on the planet," he said. "All we want to do is punish people."
He said that recreational drugs, including the synthetics he sells, should be legal, regulated and correctly labeled so that people know what they're getting and how much they can safely take.
A mother's plea
Over at the police department, Chief Ramsay is dealing with a growing number of problems posed by synthetic drugs.
Ramsay said one doctor told him he's nostalgic for the scourges of methamphetamine and crack, because "at least they knew what they were dealing with." His officers are investigating a report that bath salts were among the substances a 31-year-old man took before getting killed while shooting it out with a police officer last month.
Synthetic drugs "are hurting a lot of lives," Ramsay said. "Law enforcement has struggled to keep up with the spiraling nature of it."
In June, the distraught mother of one of Carlson's customers showed up in his store.
Lynn Habhegger looked out of place in her professional work clothes. While Lynyrd Skynyrd boomed over the store's speakers, she told a reporter that her 24-year-old son had nearly died a few days earlier after overdosing on bath salts he bought at Last Place on Earth.
Habhegger said her son had a history of substance abuse. She said he chose bath salts this time because he knew it wouldn't show up in his required drug screenings. He was recovering at St. Luke's hospital, a few blocks away.
"I came to see where he bought it," Habhegger said. "I'm astonished that people are flocking in here when I have pictures on my phone of my son sitting in the ICU with tubes and wires coming out of him. I just want to shake some of these kids and say, 'Don't do this!'"
Larry Oakes • 612-673-1751