Ground zero in legal fight against synthetic pot is the Last Place on Earth

Last Place On Earth
In this September 2011 photo, a long line of people looking to purchase designer drugs lines up in front of the Last Place On Earth, in Duluth, Minn.
AP Photo/Paul M. Walsh

On a frigid morning last week, more than 20 people lined up on the sidewalk outside Last Place on Earth in downtown Duluth, a full half hour before it opens.

All were waiting to buy synthetic marijuana.

"It helps me get through," said Thomas Mallo, of Superior, Wis. "I mean it's legal; it's not getting me in trouble."

An hour after the store opens, customers are still streaming in. Owner Jim Carlson said it's been this way for months, since Minnesota passed a law trying to ban any chemical variation of synthetic pot. He said since then most of his competition has stopped selling it.

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Mallo spends about twenty bucks at the shop every other day on "Smokin' Camel," a brand of what the package describes as "incense." He arrived with his wife and three-year-old son, something he's not proud of.

"It makes me feel embarrassed to have him here," Mallo said. "I feel guilty about smoking anything, using any drug, alcohol or anything, with my kids when the money could go to them, but life's life. He gets taken care of."

Next March will mark the 30th anniversary of Last Place on Earth. Carlson claims his dad owned the state's first head shop in the 1960s. His own run at the business has produced sharp profits.

Jim Carlson
In this September 2011 photo, Jim Carlson, owner of Last Place On Earth, holds a bag of "No Name" synthetic drugs, in his store in Duluth, Minn.
AP Photo/Paul M. Walsh

"We're literally making millions of dollars a year off this product," Carlson said.

He mingles easily with his customers, some of whom he admits struggle with addiction. But he doesn't think that gives the government the right to shut down sale of his products, or the junk food he struggles with.

Three years ago he had stomach surgery after he ballooned to 380 pounds.

"I don't want the government to go around banning Twinkies and donuts because I have a problem with them," he said. "It's not right for someone who can control themselves and have one donut a week, saying we can't sell donuts anymore because they're killing Jim."

But Duluth Deputy Police Chief Mike Tusken said he can't ignore the toll that synthetic drugs have taken.

"It has a huge social cost," he said. "We see people down and out, we see people hospitalized."

Tusken calls Last Place on Earth ground zero in the fight against synthetic pot. Duluth was the first city in Minnesota to ban it. But Carlson immediately sued, and the city backed down. In September, two months after the state passed its law, officers confiscated guns, thousand of dollars in cash, and the store's entire inventory of incense.

Thomas Mallo
Thomas Mallo of Superior, Wis. spends about $20 every other day on synthetic marijuana at Last Place on Earth. "To be honest with you this stuff is addictive," he says. "People are going to freak out when this stuff goes."
MPR Photo/Dan Kraker

Duluth's deputy chief of investigations, Robin Roeser, said the police haven't charged Carlson because those products are still being tested.

"We do believe that he is breaking the law," Roeser said. "However it is fairly new territory, which is the reason why it's taking a little bit longer than it normally would."

Meanwhile Carlson has gone on the offensive. He sued the city to recover items seized from his store and also sued the state, arguing its law is unconstitutional.

"Mr. Carlson is no question about it a freedom fighter," said Randall Tigue, his longtime attorney. Tigue gained notoriety in the 1980s for defending Twin Cities porn merchant Ferris Alexander. He already has successfully defended Carlson twice against drug-related charges.

"He'll spend money and take grave personal risks to stand up for principle," Tigue said.

Mark Kovach
Mark Kovach of Duluth, Minn. is one of the first people in line outside Last Place on Earth. He buys synthetic marijuana for himself, but also delivers orders to others. It's part of a downtown delivery service he's trying to start. "I gotta do something," he says. "Nobody will give me a job."
MPR Photo/Dan Kraker

Indeed, Carlson said he won't back down until Tigue tells him he'll spend the rest of his life in jail.

"I'm just a real strong believer that I should be able to sell this product to people over 18 that want it, that are using it responsibly, and aren't having no problems with it," Carlson said.

Carlson's personal ideology can be boiled down to this: a person should have the right to do what they want. But in this case, it's likely the government will eventually have the final say.