Retailers sue over 'designer' drug ban

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE
  • Star Tribune
  • September 6, 2011 - 11:10 AM

Starting at midnight on Friday, it will be illegal to possess and sell what lawmakers consider dangerous designer drugs in Minnesota, including the so-called research chemical blamed for a mass overdose in Blaine this spring that killed a 19-year-old.

But three Minnesota retailers who are trying to derail the ban filed a lawsuit in Hennepin County District Court on Monday in an attempt to delay or even block the law from taking effect. They claim the ban is too vague and too broad and that consumers and retailers won't know if they are breaking the law.

"It's disappointing that anybody would file a lawsuit to protect these stores and give them the right to sell this product that's harming our youth," said Rep. John Kriesel, R-Cottage Grove, one of the authors of the law.

The legislation, passed this spring, declares it illegal for people in Minnesota to use synthetic drugs that are "substantially similar" in chemical structure and pharmacological effects to illegal drugs. Legislators also outlawed certain chemicals used to make designer drugs, including so-called synthetic pot.

To get around a federal law similar to Minnesota's ban, the targeted products are typically labeled "not for human consumption." They are sold over the Internet and in such retail outlets as tobacco shops and record stores. In many cases, the products are described as bath salts or herbal incense and are sold in tiny foil packets that often cost $10 to $50.

The ban is being challenged by three retailers: Down in the Valley, with stores in Golden Valley, Maple Grove and Crystal; Last Place on Earth in Duluth; and Disc and Tape, with stores in Moorhead, East Grand Forks and Waite Park.

They claim the law is unconstitutionally vague and provides no criteria for determining whether a substance is "substantially similar" to an illegal drug.

Consumers and retailers won't know "if they're committing a crime or not," argued attorney Marc Kurzman, who represents the stores. "You shouldn't have to get the answer by being charged and going through criminal trials."

The retailers claim Minnesota's ban could technically include hemp clothing and other products now sold in department stores and pet food stores.

The retailers also claim the law was passed without any scientific proof showing that the forbidden substances can be harmful, and that the ban infringes on an individual's rights of privacy and the pursuit of happiness.

Duluth City Attorney Gunnar Johnson, one of the defendants named in the suit, said many people have been hurt by these designer drugs because they think the products are safe.

"Government has a role in making sure that our citizens are not being exposed to harmful products, whether it's toys for kids or products that there's kind of a wink wink, that this is not for ingestion, but that's what they're selling it for," Johnson said.

The retailers were part of a group that sued the federal government this spring after the Drug Enforcement Administration used administrative powers to temporarily outlaw five chemicals commonly found in synthetic cannabinoids, which allegedly mimics the effects of marijuana. A federal judge ruled the district court did not have jurisdiction and dismissed the suit.

Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102

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