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.

Assistant Winona County Attorney Christina Davenport said the 2011 statutes outlawing specific compounds helped — to a point.

The drug can be ordered easily from China, she said, and is dealt locally for $30 a “point,” or a tenth of a gram. The county still is dealing with 911 calls from children who fear that their parents are suicidal, or who have had knives held to their throats.

“The danger really is still there; it’s just that it’s not being flaunted in the way that it was before,” she said.

Assistant St. Louis County Attorney Jon Holets, whose office deferred to federal authorities when it came to prosecuting Duluth’s Last Place on Earth, said the key will be laws that make the possession and sale of synthetic drugs a felony.

According to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, St. Louis County consistently leads the state in the number of synthetic drug cases.

“This drug is worse than methamphetamine, particularly the bath salts,” Holets said, “so let’s make it punishable the way it should be.”

Rep. John Ward, DFL-Baxter, said it’s clear that “there’s no silver bullet” to solving the state’s synthetic drug problem, and said public education on the danger of this new class of drugs will be an important component in curbing their use.

Another potential dilemma for legislators as they wrestle with this problem is the growing effort to legalize marijuana, at least for medical use. Interest groups have tried for years to lift the ban on marijuana use and appear to be readying for another effort in the coming legislative session.

That could put legislators in the position of banning fake cannabis while legalizing the real stuff.

Ward said he probably would vote against a marijuana bill, but said he doesn’t believe that the synthetic drug effort would be harmed by a bill proposing the use of medical marijuana with a doctor’s prescription.

But how the two would look side-by-side, he said, “That’s a very interesting question.”

Simonson said the marijuana debate is unrelated to the fight against synthetic drugs and “really needs to be treated separately.”

The committee will host another public hearing at 5:30 p.m. Aug. 22 at Central Lakes Community College in Brainerd. Rep. Jim Newberger, R-Becker, said he’s encouraged the next meeting is taking place at a community college.

The topic of synthetic drugs recently came up with his college-aged daughter, who told him, “It’s about time.”

“This is a rampant problem with our college kids, and bringing it to a college environment is the next step,” Newberger said.

“Her words were basically to this effect: ‘If you weren’t doing it you were one of the odd people out.’ That’s how prevalent it is.”