Feds target downtown Duluth head shop
Handcuffed patrons of the Last Place on Earth were questioned by police in front of the downtown Duluth counterculture shop Wednesday.
They were back-dropped by a sign framed with an orange neon light advertising a drug test "urine cleaner." In a shop window was an enlarged News Tribune editorial cartoon by Steve Lindstrom illustrating a customer telling a clerk, "I'd like some of that stuff that's been in the news three times a day and that people don't want me to try."
Jim Carlson, owner of the Superior Street head shop, has bragged that whenever his synthetic drugs make the news his sales rise astronomically.
Maybe not this time.
A week before a new law adds 20 chemicals to a list of prohibited substances in synthetic marijuana, Duluth police, the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crime Task Force, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Food and Drug Administration took part in a raid and executed federal search warrants at the Last Place on Earth during the noon hour Wednesday.
On Aug. 1, new state regulations will increase the penalty for selling certain compounds designed to mimic the effects of controlled substances, and a salesperson could be prosecuted as a felon and be sentenced to five years of imprisonment.
Jeanne Cooney, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Minneapolis, said the Drug Enforcement Administration was conducting a vast national synthetic drug takedown Wednesday and today, but that the Duluth operation was a separate investigation. She wouldn't disclose the target of the investigation, nor what was seized from the head shop.
"We have no complaints filed against any individual; we have no indictments," Cooney said. "Our purpose wasn't to arrest anyone. Our purpose was not to file charges against anyone today. ... We have to execute search warrants in hopes of getting evidence to determine if any criminal wrongdoing is being done and if so by whom."
Carlson's cell phone mail box was full and the business owner didn't return a page. But he told the News Tribune last week that he is less concerned about the impact of the pending Aug. 1 state law than a federal law set to take effect Oct. 1. He said his attorney, Randall Tigue, has advised him to discontinue sales of synthetic marijuana as of October, even as he prepares to challenge the broadly worded federal law.
Tigue couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday.
People poked their heads out of Superior Street restaurants and other businesses, vehicle traffic backed up and others just milled around as the high-profile raid took place in an unusually orderly fashion during the noon hour. A Duluth Transit Authority bus was parked in front of the shop in the event that it had to be used to transport those arrested. Cooney said there were only a couple of arrests and they were not related to the head shop.
Jacob Lubich and Ken Lund were in the shop when the raid began just before noon. Both men said officers entered the shop with guns drawn and ordered everyone to the floor. Twenty-eight guns had been seized from Carlson when search warrants were last executed at his shop on Sept. 21. He unsuccessfully argued to the court that the guns, $83,510 in cash and other evidence seized in that raid should be returned to him. Another hearing related to that matter is scheduled in State District Court in Duluth next week.
Lubich, 20, of Phillips, Wis., said that he buys a synthetic drug called Red Bull at the shop. "It's 100 percent legal,'' he said. "I'm surprised they are even doing this (raid.)"
Lubich said he suffers from restless leg syndrome and insomnia. "I don't have insurance and can't get medication and this is cheap and it helps me sleep," he said. He said his habit costs him $25 every few days.
Lund, 49 of Duluth was in the shop to buy a former vice president Dick Cheney T-shirt for his son's birthday. He opined that the war on drugs has simply not worked and pointed out the huge international drug cartels and the money they bring in. "All it has done is make some more rich and powerful," he said.
Lund said officers treated him respectfully, but he didn't appreciate being handcuffed while being questioned. Police told him it was for his own safety, but it didn't feel like that, he said. Lund recognizes the problem some of the Last Place on Earth customers is creating for that part of downtown. He said he sees the lines waiting to get in the business to buy their drugs in the mornings.
"I see the panhandlers. I've been panhandled,'' he said. "Police shoo them away, but they come back like cockroaches."
Duluth police Lt. Steve Stracek, supervisor of the department's Organized Crime Bureau, said he couldn't comment on the investigation, which is being headed by the U.S. Attorney's Office.
But Duluth police Chief Gordon Ramsay issued a statement touching on the problems his department has seen arising from the sale and use of synthetic drugs. Downtown business owners have complained about the people who line up at the shop to buy the drugs, and police have dealt with sometimes erratic behavior of users, some of whom end up in emergency rooms.
"For the last 16 months problems with synthetic drugs and the behaviors around the Last Place on Earth downtown have been a major concern for our citizens, business community and the police department," Ramsay said. "It has had a devastating impact on the surrounding businesses and the perception of Old Downtown. In addition, we have seen a big increase in the number of police calls around the business and for incidents involving those using synthetic drugs. ... We will remain focused on this ever evolving nuisance until the problem has been eradicated."