Knowing federal prison may well be the place he dies, Duluth head shop owner Jim Carlson delivered a last defiant courtroom tirade Thursday before U.S. District Judge David Doty slapped him with a 17½-year sentence for peddling synthetic drugs.

Carlson pointed fingers at everybody but himself. He blamed the government for leading him to believe that the products he was selling were legal. He questioned why 1,000 other Minnesota businesses that he claims sold the same things aren't facing charges. And he pronounced the nation's war on drugs a failure.

Carlson, 57, who was convicted in October on 51 of 55 felony counts, made millions of dollars selling synthetic drugs at The Last Place on Earth, his now-shuttered shop in downtown Duluth. Medical experts have testified that the criminal activity at the popular store created a public health crisis, causing a sharp increase in narcotic-related police calls, emergency room visits and even fatalities.

Carlson's in-your-face tactics in defense of his business motivated state legislators to pass tough synthetic drugs laws and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar to cosponsor a provision that bans synthetic substances. New legislation also has been introduced that will make it easier to prosecute the sale of such drugs by eliminating labeling loopholes.

"The court did justice today," Assistant U.S. attorney Surya Saxena said after Thursday's sentencing. "These drugs aren't safe to take, whether you buy them online, in a store or on the street."

Carlson has been called "arguably the most vocal proponent of synthetic drugs in the United States" by federal prosecutors. In court, he boasted that a thousand people a day bought his products.

"Is this your 'Reefer Madness' moment?" he asked Doty, referring to the movie made to scare people from smoking marijuana.

During his trial, prosecutors said Carlson sold synthetic drugs misbranded as incense, potpourri, bath salts and glass cleaner, the effects of which mimic other illegal narcotics and hallucinogens. He used employees as guinea pigs for testing the unregulated drugs so he could confirm they would "work" on his customers, the prosecution said.

Thursday's unusually long sentence hearing started with national experts debating whether the substances in the synthetic drugs Carlson sold had a substantially similar impact and chemical structure as THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. That discussion was necessary because the sentencing guidelines don't include the synthetic drugs distributed by Carlson. Doty agreed to use THC as the guideline substance.

Randall Tigue, Carlson's attorney, described the sentencing guidelines as draconian, saying his client's sentence was similar to one given to Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.

When cross-examining experts, Tigue asked if a synthetic drug study had ever been done with humans. Dr. Jordan Trecki of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency said that would be too dangerous because of the drugs' potential side effects, including seizures, paranoia and stomach ailments.

The prosecution had asked for a 20-year sentence, but Tigue argued for only three years. He cited Carlson's spotless criminal record, health issues and the fact that he was convicted of a nonviolent drug offense.

At one point during the hearing, Doty asked Tigue if he wanted him to "flout the law." Before he could answer, the judge said he was sworn to uphold the law and "that will happen today."

'A downright disgrace'

Carlson spoke for nearly half an hour, one minute talking about the government making him forfeit millions of dollars that took years to earn, the next praising himself for selling products that he claimed help people with a variety of illnesses.

"It's a downright disgrace that the government went after me," he said.

Then he turned to address Lava Haugen, who was also waiting to be sentenced for crimes related to selling synthetic drugs with Carlson. He announced that the two were no longer in a relationship, and broke into tears as he asked Doty to be lenient with her.

Unlike Carlson, Haugen told the judge she was sorry for her role in the business. She said the trial made her realize that synthetic drugs are a serious problem. She received a five-year sentence, but Doty allowed her to remain out of jail until a federal medical prison is located because she suffers from multiple sclerosis.

Tigue said he wasn't surprised by the long sentence for Carlson, but he was critical of Doty's attitude throughout the trial. Asked if the harsh sentence might deter other synthetic-drug dealers, Tigue said, "This prosecution was a far greater threat to Americans than Jim Carlson."

Klobuchar called the sentence a victory that "sends a strong message about our commitment to cracking down on synthetic drugs and the people who push them."

"Synthetic drugs are tearing families apart and claiming young peoples' lives in Minnesota and across the country," she said.

David Chanen • 612-673-4465