The Duluth City Council is considering ordinances to regulate businesses that sell synthetic drugs and to punish people who use them. The city has been wrestling with concerns about a downtown head shop, Last Place on Earth.
Linda Krug, a member of the Duluth City Council, said Tuesday that the proposed ordinances reflect the city's desire to "use all the tools in our toolbox to try to get to the heart of this thing that is wreaking havoc on our community."
A caller from Duluth, who said he was a business owner, described customers of the neighboring Last Place on Earth as "psychotic zombies" and asked, "How much more do we have to take?"
Krug said, "You talk to our emergency room docs, you talk to our businesses, you talk to the schools ... It's really starting to affect every place in Duluth. We've got to get a handle on it.
Grow the Future of Public Media
MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!
"Every time we ban one of the compounds, the chemists just change that compound, and then it becomes legal again."
Krug said that the "people who sell these synthetic drugs, it seems like they want to have it both ways. On the one hand, they want to say, hey, this product is legal. And on the other hand they want to say, but it's not for human consumption, so we ought to be able to keep selling it.
"So we've got two ordinances: One that makes ingesting it illegal, anything that is labeled 'not for human consumption' — and this stuff is — that will be illegal, and also if you sell it knowing that people are going to ingest it, that's illegal; and a second ordinance that says, OK, if it is legal, and you're going to sell it, then we're going to regulate it. You need to have it labeled. You have to have it say what all the ingredients are. You have to have it weighed correctly. You need to sell it to people who are 21 or over."
Michele Goodwin, a law professor at the University of Minnesota, said the frustration felt by Krug and her colleagues is common among policy makers who are grappling with the question: "Exactly what do you do to make people stop using this?"
"There are very sophisticated chemists who are able to rework the ingredients, the compounds, in what is being sold. So the frustration that this City Council member experiences, and many legislators, is how to keep up with what's happening," Goodwin said. "And that's often the case with technology. Law is often trailing behind, sometimes far behind. It's very difficult to prospectively regulate. So what is happening now is an attempt by the Duluth City Council to prospectively regulate. And that is to say, look, if we cannot beat them, then let's regulate and see how that works."
Mark Ryan, director of the Louisiana Poison Center, explained that his state has tried, with some success, to ban particular substances. But it has also imposed "what are called 'substitution bans.' You take the base chemical structure, the starting point, if you will, and then you limit substitutions at various points on that molecule. So that as these new molecules are created, hopefully, the substitution ban will ... include those also. So as the number of substances grows, so should automatically in theory anyway the number of substances that fall under the ban."
A caller named Katie from Sioux Falls said she'd learned about so-called bath salts the hard way. "A year ago, I had no idea what bath salts were," she said. "They certainly sounded harmless enough ... Now it turns out that my brother, who lives in another state, he's 45 years old ... he got addicted to bath salts.
"And even when they first talked to me about bath salts in regards to him ... it just sounded so harmless. If they had said, 'Your brother's taking cocaine,' I'd have been like, 'Oh my gosh, my brother's on cocaine.'
But then she read up on bath salts and discovered the damage they can do. Her brother, she said, who went into treatment a year ago, "was seriously messed up, and he was having hallucinations, and he is literally not the same person," even today.
Ryan said there are more than 200 compounds involved in the production of synthetic drugs, and that the names they go by are a big part of the problem.
"A lot of the names being used by these products make it seem as though they are not for human use, and it's by design," he said. "It was an effort to try to get around the existing drug laws. We've seen glass cleaner, hookah cleaner, toilet bowl cleaner, stain remover, plant food, and on and on and on."
Even the term "synthetic marijuana," he said, is a dangerous misnomer, because it makes people think the substance is like marijuana. Ryan explained that it acts on the same receptors as marijuana, but with more potent and wide-ranging effects.
"That 'synthetic marijuana' term gives people a false sense of security, that 'Oh, this is just a different form of marijuana.' And it's not," Ryan said.
"There are hundreds of these [compounds]," Ryan said. "Most of them have never been tested on anything. It's a huge roulette that's going on out there, and there may be another monster created that may cause these really horrible effects. ...
"There's one methamphetamine, basically. It's hugely abused, but it's only one substance. This is a moving target. Every time we think we're zeroing in a little bit on the target, it moves. And we're starting to see some really serious effects from some of these. There's a cannabinoid out there called XLR11 that's causing acute kidney injury."
"People have figured out they can make a ton of money doing this, and it's quite easy to alter these molecules in a factory that can produce them readily," he explained. "So here we are in a free market society, and people are willing to buy 'em and try 'em, and in many cases either hurt themselves or kill themselves or those around them. But they're still willing to do it."
A caller in Duluth named Britt called to say, "I happened to drive by the Last Place on Earth as you were talking about it. I counted six people standing outside the door, smoking cigarettes, filthy clothing — just not the kind of people you want to see downtown — just standing at the door, knocking on it, trying to get in.
"Duluth has made a lot of strides in becoming a really fun place to go, with lots of theater and music and arts. And this place and its customers are ruining it for all of us."
LEARN MORE ABOUT SYNTHETIC DRUGS:
• A Lethal Dose: The war on synthetic drugs
"From a small town in Oklahoma to suburban Minnesota, these products have generated unusual violence and physical suffering. States have responded by banning chemicals found in these drugs, but manufacturers remain one step ahead of the law." (Star Tribune)
• Bath salts laws: Officials struggle to regulate new recipes for synthetic drugs
The drugs are often sold at small, independent stores in misleading packaging that suggests common household items like bath salts, incense and plant food. But the substances inside are powerful, mind-altering drugs that have been linked to bizarre and violent behavior across the country. (Associated Press)
• Synthetic Drugs FAQ
(Illinois Attorney General)