Synthetic drugs continuing problem in Minnesota
- Article by: AMY FORLITI
- Associated Press
- May 30, 2014 - 4:35 PM
MINNEAPOLIS — Charges filed this week in the death of a Woodbury teen who took a synthetic hallucinogen renew concerns about the dangers of these man-made drugs, which come in potent variations and appear to be gaining popularity in Minnesota despite recent fatalities and new laws designed to crack down on sellers.
Seventeen-year-old Tara Fitzgerald died Jan. 11 after she and a friend took a substance they thought was LSD, prosecutors said. According to court documents, Fitzgerald bought the substance — 25i-NBOMe — from a classmate at Woodbury High School.
That substance, and its related compounds, are "substantially more potent than other hallucinogenic compounds" and even small amounts can cause seizures, cardiac and respiratory arrest, or death, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Between March 2012 and August 2013, the deaths of at least 19 people nationwide, ages 15 to 29, were linked to these compounds, the DEA said. Since then there have been several more: including Fitzgerald's death and the death of a 16-year-old boy in Indiana just two weeks ago. Earlier this year in Mankato, a 17-year-old girl and 22-year-old man died after ingesting a different compound.
"The trend that we're seeing is kind of scary, because I think there's a rather casual attitude among young people that this is safe — and they really don't know what they are buying," said Woodbury police Chief Lee Vague.
Authorities say seizures of all types of synthetic drugs have grown exponentially in Minnesota over the last year.
Brian Marquart, who oversees 22 state-funded gang and drug task forces across the state, said that in 2012, the task forces seized 4,648 grams of synthetic drugs. Last year, that number jumped to 1,017,252 grams. The figures are from task force seizures alone, not seizures by departments who conduct their own drug investigations.
Authorities said most of the synthetics in Minnesota are being purchased online. The most prominent retail store, Last Place on Earth in Duluth, was shuttered by the feds last year, but Marquart said the retail market isn't totally shut down.
"I'm aware of other locations ... that are trying to usurp the law," he said, noting that investigations are ongoing but declining to give details. He said many of the locations "aren't the typical business like you are thinking of. A lot of them may be run out of legitimate business. Some of them may be run out of a garage."
Marquart said the Woodbury case shows authorities need to better educate the public — including parents and teens — about the dangers of even small doses of synthetics.
Adam Pederson, prevention program director for Minnesota Adult & Teen Challenge, said the organization's Know the Truth program works directly in schools to educate students about drugs, including synthetics.
Pederson said his group found synthetic drug use declined among teens after a highly publicized overdose in Blaine in 2011 and efforts by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar to create tougher federal laws. But in the last six months, he's noticed synthetics are making a comeback in schools.
For the 2011-2012 school year, 27 percent of the 25,146 high school students surveyed by Know the Truth said they used illegal drugs. Of the users, 14.4 percent used synthetics.
The survey of a sample of students statewide showed the percentage of users who abused synthetics went down to 10.8 percent a year later. But for this current school year, 26 percent of the 15,539 students surveyed said they used drugs, and 11.9 percent of those users had abused synthetics.
Pederson said synthetics are popular among people who are on probation or treatment, because the drugs are difficult to test for. There's a false perception the drugs are safe, he said, when in reality every package is different and a buyer never knows what's inside.
Carol Falkowski, a drug expert and founder of Drug Abuse Dialogues, said manufacturers are constantly creating new chemical compounds to avoid prosecution.
State Rep. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, authored legislation that passed this session that expands the definition of a drug, to eliminate potential sales. Klobuchar has worked to get several synthetics banned, and has current legislation that would make it easier for prosecutors to prove substances were intended to be ingested as synthetics.
"We have to have our laws as sophisticated as the people who are breaking them," Klobuchar said.
"Unlike the hallucinogens of the 1960s, these are hallucinogens of unknown composition and can result in fatalities," Falkowski said. "This new generation of users has to acknowledge that the effects of these drugs can be fatal and immediate."
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