Were synthetic drugs OK to sell? Or were the substances illegal?

  • Article by: RANDY FURST , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 17, 2013 - 9:25 PM

Attorneys sketched out opposing views as federal trial begins.

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Defendants Jim Carlson, left, owner of Duluth’s Last Place on Earth head shop, and his son, Joseph Gellerman, left court in downtown Minneapolis on Tuesday.

Photo: BRIAN PETERSON • brianp@startribune.com,

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A defiant Duluth head-shop owner went on trial in U.S. District Court on Tuesday in a case that illustrates the nation’s battle over what constitutes illegal drugs.

Jim Carlson, owner of the Last Place on Earth, his girlfriend and his son are charged with 55 counts of illegally selling banned synthetic drugs by allegedly “misbranding” them as herbal incense, bath salts, watch cleaner and other names.

“They are recreational drugs used to get high,” said federal prosecutor Surya Saxena in his opening argument to the jury, accusing the three of conspiring to circumvent federal statutes. “They called the product one thing when they were something else.”

Labeling the prosecution case an “ambush,” defense attorney Randall Tigue countered that the chemical compounds the head shop sold were not banned and that Carlson obeyed the law.

“If a drug was banned, he would not sell it,” said Tigue. “He did it from Day One and he did until the day it [the store] closed.”

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. A Star Tribune investigation in 2011 reported that at least two products sold at the store in 2011 contained chemicals that mimic illegal drugs.

But a federal jury will have to grapple with the defense contention that Carlson was meticulous about taking synthetic drugs off the sales counter when he learned that they had been outlawed and replacing them with another substance.

“These [drugs] were not banned and they were not substantially similar,” said defense attorney John Markham.

Carlson’s girlfriend, Lava Marie Haugen, and his son, Joseph James Gellerman, were employees at the store. The three were charged in December 2012, 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.

Carlson has fired back, suing the federal government to make it reveal the legal basis for its high-profile raid on his Duluth store in July 2012, when agents seized a large amount of his inventory, two vehicles and almost $3 million in cash.

Carlson, whose store is currently shuttered pending the outcome of a nuisance lawsuit brought by the city of Duluth, has been an outspoken challenger of the government’s right to crack down on synthetic drugs, saying the laws used to prosecute sellers have been “unconstitutionally vague.”

Carlson, who admittedly made millions of dollars, said his sales tripled after he began selling synthetic drugs in 2009.

Authorities had raided Carlson’s store on Sept. 21, 2011, and seized weapons, cash, business records and suspected synthetic drugs. Carlson filed a complaint against the city of Duluth, asking for the return of the weapons and $83,000 in cash.

A St. Louis County judge ruled in February 2012 that the seized items were within the scope of the warrant and that police may retain them pending the outcome of Carlson’s criminal trial. Carlson appealed, but the appeals court ruled against him, reasoning that the federal charges were directly related to the seized evidence.

Advice to jurors

Jury selection began on Monday and was completed on Tuesday.

Before opening arguments began, U.S. District Judge David Doty counseled jurors not to discuss the case with anyone, including their families, and told them not to go on Google to research the case nor to post what they were doing on Facebook.

  • Lethal dose

    To read previous stories about the new wave of synthetic drugs and efforts to combat the growing menace, go to startribune.com/lethaldose.

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