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Editorial: Synthetic drug war is far from over

Published 12:07pm Thursday, October 24, 2013

The conviction earlier this month of a head shop owner in Duluth is a victory in the fight against synthetic drugs, but it’s a battle that’s far from over.

The trial of Jim Carlson, the operator of the Last Place on Earth shop, was one of the first tests in federal court of how effectively authorities can combat synthetic drugs, usually sold under innocuous names such as “bath salts,” “spice” or “incense,” that occupy a legally ambiguous area because many of their ingredients are permitted substances.

Many of the drugs are sold online, making it difficult for state law enforcement officials to monitor. Because producers constantly make slight variations in chemical formulations to come up with new drugs that aren’t covered by laws, the so-called “designer” drugs can defy regulation.

Synthetic drugs resulted in nearly 23,000 emergency room visits nationwide in 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Health officials lament there is a perception that synthetic drugs are relatively harmless, when nothing could be further from the truth.

Carlson, 56, was charged under several federal laws against receiving and selling misbranded drugs. Carlson didn’t deny selling the products, but his defense argued he did nothing illegal.

Earlier this year, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., introduced the legislation making it easier to prosecute the new synthetic drugs that are “analogues,” defined as substances with similar chemical structures and effects to controlled substances already on the government’s official list. The fight against synthetic drugs is one of Klobuchar’s signature issues. In 2011, she authored a bill that outlawed synthetic substances such as 2C-E, which led to the overdose death of a Blaine teenager and sent 10 others to the hospital. President Barack Obama signed that bill into law in 2012.

“Synthetic drugs endanger the lives of teenagers and families every day,” Klobuchar said last week. “That’s why I fought to make drugs like 2C-E and bath salts illegal and why I’m continuing to work to make it easier for law enforcement to crack down on new synthetic drugs that come on the market.”

The fight is being carried at the state level, too. Two days after Carlson’s conviction, the House Select Committee on Controlled Substances and Synthetic Drugs convened to address the problem.

Rep. Erik Simonson, a DFLer from Duluth, and Rep. Dan Schoen, a DFLer from Cottage Grove, have excellent proposals. Simonson, who chairs the committee, proposes a “look-alike law” that would regulate analogues. Schoen, a Cottage Grove police officer, wants to see an education program similar to the widely publicized “Faces of Meth” program. Schoen also favors giving the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy expanded authority to classify analogues as illegal.

The case against Carlson, who was convicted on 51 of 55 federal counts, isn’t over. His attorney is seeking a new trial. Meanwhile, prosecutors are seeking about $6.5 million that Carlson made on the sale of synthetic marijuana and other substances. Federal agents seized about $3 million in cash, vehicles and merchandise during a July 2012 raid on the shop and now are seeking other assets, including Carlson’s building.

We’re not naive enough to think new laws will eliminate the trade in and demand for synthetic drugs — but we do hope Carlson’s conviction will give potential dealers a reason to think twice.

— Post-Bulletin, Oct. 22