Cops seized more than $50,000 worth of 'herbal incense,' plus guns and cash, owner says.
DULUTH - Jim Carlson knew police might one day raid his head shop in downtown Duluth, where he continued to sell synthetic marijuana and so-called bath salts after state and federal bans on synthetic drugs. On Wednesday, his prediction came true.
Just after 1 p.m., more than a dozen Duluth police officers emerged from a city bus outside Carlson's Last Place on Earth store on Superior Street, marched inside and started seizing more than a dozen cardboard boxes of "herbal incense" and other items.
Public information officer Jim Hansen said Duluth police were enforcing a law designed to protect children and others in the community.
Carlson estimated police confiscated more than $50,000 worth of herbal incense, commonly called synthetic marijuana. He said they also seized thousands of dollars in cash, his computer, cellphone and 31 guns, which Carlson described as a personal collection of hunting rifles.
Until the raid, Last Place on Earth was one of the few retailers in Minnesota that continued to openly sell the sometimes deadly chemicals despite a July 1 ban on many substances in synthetic drugs. Previously, Carlson predicted the store would generate about $6 million in sales this year off the sale of synthetic pot and stimulants.
The products, which have generated thousands of calls to poison control centers and have been linked to more than 20 deaths in the U.S., are man-made chemicals designed to mimic marijuana, ecstasy and other illegal drugs. They have been sold in head shops and by online retailers, labeled as innocuous products such as bath salts and herbal incense.
It's not clear whether Carlson, who is one of several retailers challenging Minnesota's synthetic drug ban, will immediately replace the merchandise. He said he quit selling bath salts last week.
Carlson said police warned him that if he reorders, they will raid his store every day and confiscate any contraband. Carlson said he will consult with an attorney before deciding whether to restock.
Before the raid, Carlson claimed that his products complied with Minnesota's new rules, but a test conducted for the Star Tribune showed that at least one of his "herbal blend" products contained a banned chemical. Carlson told the newspaper that his supplier made a mistake and had since switched to a legal formula.
The raid followed other seizures across the state this summer, including two in Moorhead, where criminal cases are pending, and one in Winona, which remains under consideration at the county attorney's office.
About 30 customers were inside the store at the time of the raid. They were told to leave and spilled onto the sidewalk. The store remained closed for more than four hours as officers searched the building.
Carlson's son, Joseph Gellerman -- who was working behind the counter when the raid began -- was quickly handcuffed and taken to the police station. He was released later that afternoon. Gellerman, 32, said police told him he had been detained for selling the herbal incense to an undercover officer and may be charged later.
Carlson's attorney, Randall Tigue, said he hadn't seen search warrants but believes his client would win in court.
"It's not surprising that they would pull something like this," Tigue said. "I'm reasonably confident that we'll have legal arguments that will prevail."
Carlson called the raid a "harassment campaign." He said he has been collecting evidence of police harassing his customers. He said the computers contain video of that harassment.
Hansen, of the police department, said any equipment seized was simply part of the investigation.
"We know that there have been synthetics sold out of there -- illegal synthetics," Hansen said.
Carlson reopened around 5:45 p.m., shortly after police departed. He was still selling "adult sex pills, "relaxation brownies," energy pills and other supplements, as well cheap cigarettes and sodas.
One customer walked out the door disappointed. "We've still got porn," the clerk offered.
"I don't need that," the customer said, opening the door to leave.
Many customers were upset by the police action.
"It's legal so why are they taking it away from us?" asked Laurie Briggs, 18, of Duluth, who said she may turn to regular marijuana if she can't find legal synthetics anymore.
Another customer said he planned to go online and buy herbal incense in bulk.
Still, the raid brought relief to some of the store's neighbors, who have complained in recent months about the crowds that regularly gather in front of the store, panhandling and making lewd comments.
"We hope that things change," said Connie Morehouse, a social worker for Access North Center for Independent Living, which works with people who have disabilities. Morehouse said staff members sometimes walk clients out the door because they feel uncomfortable. "Hopefully things will calm down a little bit,"she said.
Melissa Taylor of Solon Springs, Wis., was also happy to hear of the raid. Taylor said she recently discovered that her 18-year-old son was coming to Duluth to buy synthetic drugs from Carlson's store.
She said her son recently "threw me around like a ragdoll" after she asked him about his drug use.
She said police told her they couldn't do anything because her son wasn't committing a crime.
"I have never felt so helpless in my life," Taylor said. She said she was thrilled to hear about the raid. "Thank God," she said. "I think it's cool. I think it's awesome. I think it's great."
Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102