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Panel: State board should flex power over synthetic drugs

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The Last Place On Earth
The Last Place on Earth in Duluth, Minn. was shut down over synthetic drug sales.
Derek Montgomery / For MPR News File

A legislative panel has recommended that state lawmakers give the state Board of Pharmacy the power to order businesses to stop selling synthetic drugs.

Convened to examine how Minnesota could combat synthetic drugs, the panel also proposes a statewide educational campaign, expanded drug definitions and training for prosecutors. It also recommends giving the Board of Pharmacy the authority to add products to Minnesota's list of banned drugs.

Members of the House Select Committee on Controlled Substances and Synthetic Drugs released the report Wednesday to give lawmakers time to consider it during the upcoming legislative session.

The special legislative panel began its work last year, soon after authorities shut down the Duluth head shop known as The Last Place on Earth and prosecuted its owner for selling banned synthetic drugs. At a hearing today Lynn Habhegger of Carlton, Minn., told lawmakers how her son Corey overdosed in 2011 on the bath salts he purchased at the shop. She said her son suffered permanent brain damage.

"Corey didn't lose his life to synthetic drugs," Habhegger said. "He lost his mind to them, and ultimately we have lost our son and the man he could have become. Corey will never be able to hold a job, go to college, have a profession, serve his country, get married or have a family."

"ANOTHER TOOL"

Despite recent efforts to toughen state drug laws, the problems associated with products such as bath salts and synthetic marijuana continue to grow, said state Rep. Erik Simonson, who chairs the committee.

Simonson, DFL-Duluth, said a different approach is needed.

"Essentially what we need to do is put another tool or two into the toolbox to give law enforcement and prosecutors a better opportunity to control this problem in their own communities," he said.

Another recommendation would expand the definition of "drug" in state law to include any compound or substance that induces an effect "substantially similar" to a known illegal drug. Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson said the makers of synthetic drugs have avoided prosecution by simply adjusting their formulas.

"It really became a game of Whac-A-Mole, where as soon as a compound was listed as a named substance and a banned controlled substance, the suppliers would just slightly tweak it to alter its chemical structure," Swanson said. "Then it would stay off the list. Then the Legislature and the Board of Pharmacy would name new compounds, and on and on it went, as the industry and the sellers tried to get ahead of the laws."

The proposal does not try to tackle Internet sales of synthetic drugs. Instead, it calls for the Legislature to pass a resolution that asks Minnesota's Congressional delegation to help on that front.

The report also calls for a pilot project to train prosecutors for synthetic drug cases, a stronger drug-testing effort at the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and a statewide educational awareness campaign conducted by three government agencies on the dangers of synthetic drugs. The committee did not estimate any of the costs of its recommendations.