The Minnesota House took a dramatic step Thursday to curb the rising use of synthetic drugs, voting to give a state board the power to stop retailers from selling the products — designed to mimic street drugs — without first seeking court action.
If the bill becomes law, Minnesota is expected to be the first state to grant such expansive "cease-and-desist" powers to a board.
"This will be the tool that will once and for all stop retail sales of synthetic drugs," said Rep. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, the chief sponsor.
Passed unanimously, 130-0, the measure close loopholes in a three-year-old state law that was intended to rein in the sale of synthetics, which often are marketed as high-priced "bath salts" or "incense" and simulate the effects of marijuana, cocaine or methamphetamine.
Under the bill, the state Board of Pharmacy would be empowered to issue a cease-and-desist order to retailers carrying products that contain banned substances. The bill also expands the definition of an illegal synthetic to include not just specific compounds, but any combination of chemicals that produce the same effects as banned drugs.
Simonson said the expansion of the board's powers could pack a big punch.
"We've done some research and this is the first time we've been able to find a state that has attempted this," he said. "It's kind of groundbreaking and we're excited about it."
Synthetic drugs have caused at least four deaths in Minnesota and dozens of emergency room visits.
Cody Wiberg, executive director of the Board of Pharmacy, said that expanding the definition of a drug to include synthetics makes it "crystal clear" that the products are illegal, enabling the board to use its authority. Wiberg said it's a big step but still may not provide a full solution in the era of Internet sales.
"Never have we claimed that we're going to end the problem," he said. "What we're trying to do is what a state government can do. We're trying to prevent the sale of these products from retail locations in Minnesota because of the devastating effects that they can have on local communities." However, he said, "Trying to prevent people from buying these things online is a much more difficult proposition."
Simonson chaired the Select Committee on Controlled Substances and Synthetic Drugs, appointed by House Speaker Paul Thissen last year. The committee spent six months holding meetings across the state to gauge the effects of synthetic drugs on communities. They heard stories from Moorhead Police Lt. Brad Penas, who said that despite a 2011 ban, as many as five storefronts sold the products; although his officers made arrest after arrest, the cases were dropped. In Duluth they heard from St. Luke's Hospital, which treated 75 emergency room patients suspected of taking synthetic drugs, sending nearly a fourth of them to a psychiatric unit at a cost of $425,000. There was also testimony from Lynn Habhegger, whose son Corey Kellis was in intensive care for 10 days and committed to a mental hospital for issues related to the psychoses he suffered after taking a synthetic drug.
Last Place on Earth
Stories aside, lawmakers already had a blueprint to learn from: The saga of Last Place on Earth, a now-shuttered Duluth head shop that for years defied the law and continued to sell synthetic drugs despite the ban, earning owner Jim Carlson millions of dollars in sales as customers lined up around the block. Carlson was convicted in federal court last fall for selling synthetic drugs. He awaits sentencing.
Simonson said law enforcement efforts were hampered by the lag between the time federal charges were filed against Carlson and when the business actually closed.
Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, who is carrying the Senate version, said the mandatory restitution provision for retailers convicted of selling controlled substances also is a lesson learned from Carlson.
"The money that we all spent as taxpayers on Duluth police, the St. Louis County attorney and sheriff's office to try and chase him around is significant," Reinert said. "If the Legislature cannot possibly — and we can't as a part-time Legislature — keep up with these quick variations of the drug, we need to vest that power with somebody, and the Board of Pharmacy seems the right place to do it."
The bill now moves to the Senate. Reinert said the prospects for passage there are strong.
Wiberg said the number of synthetic drug-related calls to poison control centers has dropped in recent years.
"There's some evidence to suggest the efforts we've made so far might be lowering the impact," Wiberg said. "But we certainly do know that right until the day they were shut down, Last Place on Earth was still selling product, and there's still people out there buying it."