State officials are finding it difficult to police synthetic forms of marijuana, even after Minnesota lawmakers strengthened a law passed a little more than a year ago that banned synthetic pot.
As a Duluth businessman continues to sell thousands of dollars worth of synthetic marijuana every day, authorities are trying new legal tactics to stop the sales.
Duluth police refer to their city as the epicenter of Minnesota's fight against synthetic marijuana. That's a view increasingly agreed with by some of the businesses that surround Jim Carlson's downtown headshop, Last Place on Earth.
Dean Baltes, president of ShelDon, a commercial printing company next door to Last Place on Earth, said Carlson's patrons' uncouth behavior in the neighborhood is driving customers away from his business.
"We've had to call the police because we've had people having sexual intercourse across the street in the garden, in the middle of the day," Baltes said. "It's an unbelievable situation to be put through."
Baltes said he is losing around $2,000 a day because of the scruffy crowds of Last Place on Earth customers who clog the sidewalks outside his store. Walk-in traffic has plummeted by more than half, he said.
"Not to mention that we're fighting through the worst economy that we've seen since the Great Depression, we have to deal with this."
Baltes said the headshop's customers frequently vomit or urinate on his storefront. Police cite reports of people being harassed as they walk down the sidewalk. That behavior is at the heart of a new "nuisance" lawsuit the city of Duluth filed last week against Carlson.
Assistant City Attorney Nathan LaCoursiere said the suit is not about the legality of drugs sold at Last Place on Earth.
"It is about the impact and effects that these drugs are having on our community," LaCoursiere said. And, one of those effects is higher costs for taxpayers, he said.
"In the form of a daily police presence, police and fire services, unreimbursed emergency medical attention, for people that hit our ERs," LaCoursiere said.
The city is asking the court to order a permanent ban on the sale of synthetic drugs and to shut down Carlson's business for a year. It represents a new tactic for Duluth, based not on the legality of the product Carlson sells, but the ill-effects on the community those sales allegedly have. It's a way around the problem that has stymied police and lawmakers.
The law, Carlson said, just can't keep up with the chemistry.
"The problem is they ban specific chemicals, and the manufacturers know every state and every federal law," Carlson said. "And they start switching it up months before they become illegal; they switch ingredients."
The phone rings incessantly in Carlson's huge office in the back of his store, which overflows with papers and boxes, memorabilia from his worldwide travels, even glass water pipes, or "bongs." On the sales floor customers line the perimeter of his shop, most waiting to buy little packets of synthetic marijuana. Carlson said Duluth police raided his store over a year ago, followed by federal officers a couple months ago. But still, he hasn't been charged with a crime, he said.
"It's just a constant, non-stop parade of harassment by the city, state, federal, county government to try and do anything they can to bother me," Carlson said.
Other states are also trying different legal approaches to stop the sale of synthetic drugs. Illinois passed a law this summer aimed at the labels on synthetic marijuana. The package labels typically read, "not for human consumption," even though retailers know the items are often bought for consumption.
The law increases penalties for selling any drug with a misleading label, said Cara Smith, chief of staff in Illinois' Attorney General's office.
"We believe that we will always lose the game if we are focused simply on what chemicals are contained within the packages," Smith said. "The manufacturers can always beat us at that game."
Smith said Illinois' new law has virtually wiped out the sale of synthetic drugs there. Nationwide, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, the number of synthetic marijuana exposure calls so far this year has dropped 13 percent, from 5,119 calls in 2011 to 4,460 in 2012. But that has not been the case in Minnesota, where calls to the state's poison control center are holding steady.