Police across the state may soon have a new tool to help cut the flow of synthetic drugs into Minnesota.
A panel of lawmakers Wednesday concluded six months of public hearings by signing off on measures aimed at closing the legal loopholes that have helped manufacturers and distributors of the synthetic drugs evade prosecution.
Despite laws passed in 2011 that deemed specific synthetic drugs illegal, law enforcement has continued to struggle with the fallout from the substances marketed as “bath salts” or “incense” and designed to mimic the effects of marijuana, cocaine, or methamphetamine.
In Moorhead, Minn., where as many as five head shops once lined the streets and one man was so high on synthetic drugs that he jumped through a second-floor glass window, police made arrest after arrest, only to see the cases dropped.
Because the laws made specific chemical compounds illegal, manufacturers simply tweaked their recipes to skirt the law.
“Even with the new laws in the books we were struggling,” Moorhead Police Lt. Brad Penas said. “It was a very difficult process even though we thought we had the tools that we needed.”
Chief among the new recommendations is expanding the definition of an illegal drug from a specific chemical compound to anything producing the same effect as a banned drug.
Expanding those definitions will enable authorities to “deal with this amoeba as it changes its form,” Attorney General Lori Swanson said.
The next step is for legislators to draft and introduce a bill during the upcoming legislative session.
Other changes likely will include enabling the state’s Board of Pharmacy to immediately shutter any business that sells synthetic drugs, rather than seeking court or legislative action and funding a pilot project to train county attorneys to prosecute synthetic drug cases.
Committee Chairman Rep. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, called the proposed changes a start, but said they’re not intended as a cure-all for Minnesota’s synthetic drug problem.
“We believe we are slowing it significantly, but the next step has to be Internet sales,” Simonson said.
Simonson said that over the past year, St. Luke’s Hospital in Duluth saw 75 emergency room patients suspected of taking synthetic drugs. Nearly a quarter of them spent time in intensive care while another 16 percent were sent to a psychiatric unit. The estimated cost: $425,000.
Simonson’s district also is home to Last Place on Earth, a now-closed Duluth head shop, whose owner, Jim Carlson, awaits sentencing following a federal conviction for selling synthetic drugs. Corey Kellis, then 24, bought a packet of bath salts there in 2011, his mother Lynn Habhegger said Wednesday. He soon suffered hallucinations and cardiac arrest, wrecking his kidneys and leaving him in intensive care for 10 days, she said.
The drugs didn’t kill him, but last week he was committed to a mental hospital for the third time for issues related to the permanent psychosis he suffered after taking the drug. He was found outside in subzero temperatures wearing nothing but long underwear and attacked a police officer who tried to help, she said.
Preventing such suffering and the burden it places on the judicial, medical and civil systems, she said, is enough to warrant stronger laws.
“Corey didn’t lose his life to synthetic drugs,” his mother said. “He lost his mind to them and ultimately we have lost our son and the man he could have become.”