Minnesota, Wisconsin targeting synthetic drugs with legislation
DULUTH, Minn. – It appears that both Minnesota and Wisconsin will emerge from their current legislative sessions with new laws in place to combat the scourge of synthetic drugs. And Northland lawmakers have played a leading role in putting new enforcement tools into the hands of local authorities struggling to keep pace with an industry that is rapidly evolving and highly lucrative, even if socially destructive.
The desire of Northland legislators to spearhead such legislation should come as no surprise, given the challenges their constituents have faced due to the sale of synthetic chemical compounds designed to mimic the effects of other, illicit drugs. These designer drugs, typically labeled as being “not for human consumption,” often are marketed as a multitude of products as diverse as incense, bath salts or even watch cleaners.
In Duluth, the Last Place on Earth did brisk sales in synthetic drugs until federal agents descended on the head shop, successfully prosecuting its owner, Jim Carlson, and shutting down the business.
“Our problem essentially has gone away for the moment in Duluth, but we don’t want it to happen again in our city or anyplace else for that matter,” said Rep. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, who has successfully shepherded a bill through the Minnesota House this year that would grant greater authority to the state’s Board of Pharmacy to identify and ban the sale of synthetic drugs.
Up until now, many governments have been unable to keep pace with chemists behind the scenes in the synthetic drug industry.
“We’d pass a ban on one non-analog drug, and the following day they would change the composition of the drug,” Simonson said.
Problems with synthetic drugs weren’t confined to Duluth in the least, according to Rep. Janet Bewley, D-Ashland, pointing to the scene in her own hometown.
“J.C. Moon was our Last Place on Earth. The store was unapologetically selling these products, all the while saying they were perfectly legal and you can’t stop us,” she said.
But Bewley said she and many of her constituents were not willing to sit idly by as users, many of them quite young, continued to show up in hospital emergency rooms suffering from adverse reactions.
“What started out as a feeling of helplessness turned into our complete determination to do something,” she said.
Rep. Nick Milroy, D-Superior, said what happened in Duluth struck fear into neighboring communities.
As rumors circulated that Last Place on Earth might expand across the river, Milroy recalled, Superior Mayor Bruce Hagen asked him to get active on the issue.
“He contacted Rep. Bewley, Sen. (Bob) Jauch and myself. Mayor Hagen wanted us to act quickly to protect his community from the proliferation of these substances.” Milroy said.
Milroy described synthetic drugs as more than a local threat. “It’s a nationwide issue,” he said.
But like Simonson, he acknowledged that effective legislation has proven tough to fashion.
“It’s hard to write a law to regulate substances that have not even been derived yet,” Milroy observed.
But a new bill co-sponsored by Bewley, Milroy and Jauch, D-Poplar, and recently signed into law, provides more a much more comprehensive listing of drug categories that can be banned from sale.
“By no means do we think that our problems will be over with this new law, but at least we will have the tools we need to prosecute the sale of synthetic drugs,” Bewley said.
Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, noted that before federal officials intervened, the city of Duluth had struggled to regulate the sale of designer drugs on its own in the face of numerous legal challenges. That’s why he sponsored a companion Minnesota Senate bill to the one authored by Simonson in the House this session.
“We really were kind of a test case when you look at everything Duluth had to go through,” he said. “We’re trying to take some of the lessons learned in Duluth so other communities will have the tools they need in the future.”
At the very least, Milroy said, he hopes that by getting synthetic drugs off store shelves, fewer people will be inclined to take up using the products, even if they’re still available online and through other underground channels.
“When people were openly buying this stuff out of storefronts, it gave some a false sense that the products must be safe to take, when nothing could be further from the truth,” he said.
While both the Minnesota House and Senate have now passed matching bills in support of granting the state Board of Pharmacy authority to more swiftly ban the sale of certain mind-altering chemical compounds, only the House has so far signed off on a plan to provide $100,000 to educate young people on the dangers of using the products.
Reinert said he continues to seek similar funding in the Senate as the legislative session nears its end.
Milroy and Bewley said they’d like to fund an education campaign in Wisconsin, too, although they deemed that an unlikely sell in a Republican-led legislature.
“We would have liked to include an educational component, but putting a fiscal impact on the bill this year could have jeopardized its passage,” she said.