Legislative panel on synthetic drugs to hold first hearing

A legislative panel on synthetic drugs will begin hearings this week.

House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, created the Select Committee on Controlled Substances and Synthetic Drugs in May and appointed state Rep. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, as chairman.

The impact of synthetic drugs is straining Minnesota's health care system, Simonson said.

"We're seeing several cases a day come through our emergency rooms and our hospitals," he said, "and it's just overwhelming the system, so we hope that if we can get these things off the street once and for all, it will limit some of those problems and get these communities back to normal."

Simonson said he wants the committee to complete two tasks.

"One is to come back in February with proposed legislative changes that can make the job of law enforcement and the courts a little easier when it comes to prosecuting these crimes," Simonson said, "as well as hopefully get it once and for all get it out of our retail atmosphere so that we don't continue to have these drugs marketed as legal and safe right here on our streets."

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Law enforcement officers around the state, particularly in Duluth, have struggled to control the flow of synthetic drugs, even though the state banned the sale of certain synthetic substances that mimic the effects of marijuana.

Simonson, who said the committee must find a way to make it easier for county attorneys to prosecute crimes involving synthetic drugs, also wants committee members to create an information campaign about their harmful effects targeted at students in middle and high school.

County attorneys from St. Louis and Winona counties and representatives from the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy and Department of Public Safety are scheduled to speak at the committee's first hearing, which is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Tuesday at 5 State Office Building in St. Paul.

The other members of the select committee are Reps. Kathy Lohmer, R-Stillwater; Jim Newberger, R-Becker; Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park; and John Ward, DFL-Baxter. The panel is due to issue a report by Feb. 25, 2014.