Minnesota lawmakers search for ways to curb soaring use of synthetic drugs

  • Article by: ABBY SIMONS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 10, 2013 - 10:28 AM

Legislators hear from experts on extent of the growing problem.

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Violet Stephens, forensic scientist for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’s laboratory, displayed a map at a legislative hearing Tuesday at the Capitol in St. Paul showing the number of synthetic drug cases in the state.

Photo: GLEN STUBBE • gstubbe@startribune.com,

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Synthetic drugs engineered to mimic the effects of cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine are pouring into Minnesota through retailers and Internet purchases at a rate that has lawmakers scrambling for ways to shut off the flow.

Legislators listened for hours on Tuesday to experts who say the new concoctions are becoming a public health threat in Minnesota that may eclipse that of methamphetamine a decade ago.

The state has passed laws banning the chemicals that make up the synthetic drugs — the latest will go into effect Aug. 1 — but manufacturers continue to alter the drugs’ chemical compositions minutely, creating new compounds to skirt the laws. Cody Wiberg of the Minnesota Pharmacy Board calls it a “Whac-A-Mole” problem.

“Every time you stomp something down, something else pops up,” he told legislators Tuesday.

One solution could be a law aimed at the so-called “look-alike” drugs. Such a law would take in not only specific drugs, but alterations that result in a drug with the same effect.

“We have good legislation in place right now that bans specific substances, but we need to take it to the next level,” said Rep. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, who is leading the committee charged with curbing the drugs’ spread.

“How do we get this off of the shelves, off of the streets, so they cannot find ways around this statute?” he said.

His district is home to the Last Place on Earth, a Duluth head shop that has plagued law enforcement officials by continuing to sell synthetic drugs despite federal criminal charges and complaints.

Owner Jim Carlson has defied local authorities, maintaining that his products are legal.

The use of synthetic or so-called designer drugs, sold online and in stores under names such as “incense,” “bath salts” or “plant food,” has spread across the country, triggering erratic and dangerous behavior in users.

Some have landed in emergency rooms, while others have died, including a Minnesota teen who ingested a drug called 2-CE at a party in 2011.

The drugs are divided into two categories: Cannabinoids are designed to mimic the effects of marijuana, while cathinones imitate cocaine or methamphetamine.

Simonson’s Select Committee on Controlled Substances and Synthetic Drugs was formed after he proposed legislation late last session that would focus on a drug seller’s intent rather than a list of ingredients defining a particular synthetic compound.

Indiana has passed a similar bill banning “look-alikes,” but also is fending off a legal challenge to the bill.

Now dealt underground

Some law enforcement officials say such a law would be helpful, but far from a complete solution because much of the distribution occurs through Internet sales.

Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman told the committee about the summer of 2010, when a rash of residents of the typically placid bluff community believed that they were under attack by werewolves or being tortured by demons. One mother, she said, was convinced that her children were dead, and was found wandering a local cemetery searching for their graves.

Child protective cases jumped that summer more than Sonneman had seen in 30 years.

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