A panel of lawmakers on Wednesday signed off on proposed changes to state laws in hopes of cutting the flow of synthetic drugs to Minnesota.

Recommended changes by Select Committee on Controlled Substances and Synthetic Drugs would including the expanding the definition of the ever-evolving substances, often marketed in head shops as “incense” and “bath salts” which are designed to mimic the effects of marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine.

The changes would also grant stronger powers to the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy to immediately shut down the head shops that sell them, rather than going through the courts or awaiting legislative sign-off. A bill containing the recommendations will be filed during the 2014 legislative session.

The state passed laws in recent years banning the chemicals that make up the synthetic drugs, but manufacturers continue to alter their chemical compositions minutely, creating new compounds to skirt the laws. The “Whac-A-Mole” problem resulted in some head shop proprietors who sell the substances skirting prosecution. Streamlining the process to expand what is unlawful “so the board can act to deal with this amoeba as it changes its form.” Attorney General Lori Swanson said.

Other proposed changes include a pilot project to train prosecutors on how to handle such cases and pay for expert witnesses in synthetic drug investigations and trials.

The Committee’s proposed solutions came after more than six months of public hearings in Duluth, St. Paul, Brainerd and Virginia, where citizens like Lynn Habhegger talked about the substances’ devastating effect.

Habhegger’s son Corey Kellis was 24 when he bought a package of bath salts from Last Place on Earth, a now-shuttered Duluth head shop whose owner, Jim Carlson, now awaits sentencing after he following a federal conviction for selling the substances.

Within hours of taking the bath salts, Kellis suffered a heart attack and kidney failure, his mother said. While he physically recovered, he’s since been in a state of permanent psychosis and civilly committed to mental health institutions three times—most recently last week after he was found outside in sub-zero temperatures wearing nothing but long underwear. He attacked a police officer who tried to help, she said.
“Corey didn’t lose his life to synthetic drugs, he lost his mind to them and ultimately we have lost our son and the man he could have become,” said Habhegger, who advocated for the changes.

The committee's chair, Rep. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, said that while the proposed changes are a start, they're not intended as a cure-all for Minnesota's synthetic drug problem. While retail sales slow and stores like Last Place on Earth may have shuttered, online sales flourish.

"We believe we are slowing it significantly, but the next step has to be Internet sales." Simonson said.

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