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A pile of synthetic drug wrappers and paraphernalia that was collected by a shelter employee in Duluth. Forum News Service

Laws include measure to fight synthetic drugs

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ST. PAUL — Synthetic drugs will be a bit easier to fight beginning today.

They can be handled much like other illegal drugs under one of dozens of Minnesota laws that take effect today. The drug law classifies any substance that mocks an illegal drug as also being illegal, so synthetic drugs that sell under names such as K2 and Spice no longer should be sold.

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“If you are using it and you are getting high, in my interpretation, it is a drug,” said Duluth police Lt. Steve Stracek, commander of the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crime Task Force.

The law gives the state Pharmacy Board the power to order stores to stop selling the drugs.

Also, the measure, which received widespread bipartisan support, says that synthetic drug sellers who claim the drug is legal can be forced to pay restitution for costs resulting from the sale. Those costs include emergency response expenses and health care needed by someone who takes the drugs.

A key state official in implementing the law said it will not end synthetic drug use, which has resulted in young people’s deaths and serious health issues. But Executive Director Cody Wiberg of the Pharmacy Board said it will be a continued step in the right direction.

Wiberg said a series of anti-synthetic drug laws and extensive publicity about a Duluth arrest is helping reduce use of the dangerous substances.

“I am not so sure it is 100 percent gone, the retail sales of it,” he said. “I am not sure there is any place being operated so openly as Last Place on Earth.”

Last Place on Earth was a Duluth head shop that, like others in the state, openly sold synthetic drugs as legal. But with the owner facing a potential federal prison sentence, Wiberg said, young Minnesotans who flocked to the drugs because they thought they were safe may be getting the message.

“What we have tried to do on the state level with synthetic drugs is try to limit the retail sale,” Wiberg said. “I think we are making some headway there.”

Stracek agreed. “The volume we were dealing with before is not there.”

“I think that certainly tells other people that there are consequences,” he said about the Last Place court case.

With the Last Place closed, synthetic drug use appears down in Duluth, Stracek said. Now, however, users are turning to the Internet, which he said likely is the next problem policymakers must deal with.

Wiberg said state and federal officials can’t do much about online sales, but Stracek said there could be ways to stymie delivery of substances ordered online.

On Wednesday, Minnesota Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson is to announce a website designed to make the public more aware of the dangers of synthetic drugs — dangers that officials say are similar to the already-illegal drugs they mimic.

Wiberg said he has not heard from law enforcement organizations that they will want him to take action as soon as his board’s new powers kick in, but he does plan to remind them that the new law is available.

“The board will work with law enforcement, with county prosecutors to do what we can...” Wiberg said. “These are dangerous drugs, more dangerous than some of the users really believe.”

He likened synthetic drugs to Russian roulette because “there is no quality control in these products.” If someone tries one of the drugs, then buys more later, the new compound could be many times more potent than the first one, he added.

Stracek said one of the biggest synthetic drug problems has been “the underestimation of these drugs.”

Other new laws include:

  • Law enforcement officers will be forced to obtain a warrant from the courts before collecting information from electronic devices such as smartphones, and eventually the device’s owner must be notified and information obtained generally will not be admissible in court.
  • The state minimum wage begins a rise to $9.50 an hour by 2016 for large businesses; it rises to $8 an hour today, with small businesses paying $7.25.
  • The use of cotton threads to remove eyebrow, lip and other hairs no longer needs to be done by cosmetologists.
  • Notaries may charge up to $5 for their services after years with a $1 maximum.
  • Thermostats containing mercury are outlawed and manufacturers must pay for collecting and replacing them; no items with mercury will be allowed in the waste stream.
  • Retailers no longer can sell cleaning products containing the antibacterial compound triclosan.
  • A person with multiple convictions for unlawfully killing wolves may be liable for a civil penalty.
  • Snowmobiles mostly will be allowed only on forest roads during rifle deer hunting season.
  • A person 60 or older may use a crossbow for hunting deer during the archery season; now, crossbows are allowed only during firearms season.
  • Thermal imaging equipment may not be used to hunt deer.
  • Social media communication between elected officials and the general public will be allowed without it being considered an open meeting violation.
  • The state may store infants’ DNA without parental permission.

The nonpartisan House Public Information Office contributed to this story.

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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