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Duluth News Tribune, Published June 08 2013

Duluth residents ask MN attorney general for help fighting synthetic drugs

DULUTH, Minn. — Duluth residents called on Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson on Friday for help combating synthetic drugs.

More than 100 people packed a public hearing that Swanson and a special legislative committee held in Duluth. The subject was what to do about what Swanson called “this terrible venom” of synthetic drugs.

A Duluth head shop called Last Place on Earth sells synthetics, and its business has prompted numerous complaints by city leaders, residents and neighboring businesses. The owner of the shop maintains his products are not illegal.

“I'm fighting for my life down there,” said Dean Baltes, whose business is next door to Last Place On Earth. “We need some relief. A year from now doesn't cut it.”

Baltes said he loses $5,000 worth of business a week because customers are unwilling to go through the crowds outside the head shop to enter his store.

Baltas was among more than two dozen people who testified at the four-hour hearing. Others testified about the effects of synthetic drugs.

Lynn Habhegger of Carlton said her son Corey was 24 when he suffered a heart attack, complete renal failure and extreme psychosis after ingesting bath salts in June 2011. The effects continued, she said, and earlier this week he was involuntarily committed to a mental health facility.

The bath salts he took cost $30, Habhegger said. “The cost of my son losing his sanity and his peace of mind? More than I can bear,” she said.

Dr. Nick Van Deelen and two of his colleagues in the emergency room at St. Luke's hospital said they are seeing patients suffering the effects of synthetics on an almost daily basis, and their behavior is responsible for a 20 percent increase in calls for security in the ER between 2010 and 2013.

Carla Powers, director of the Duluth Public Library, reported “unprecedented” behavior problems in the library and said staff have had to call police because of people smoking synthetic marijuana in restrooms and other facilities. The library has had to lock its downstairs restrooms, she said.

Swanson told the crowd that the state understands the problem. She pointed to the Minnesota State Substance Abuse Strategy announced last September, the Violent Crime Coordinating Council appointed to fight drug crimes, and the power given the state Board of Pharmacy to quickly declare substances illegal.

State Rep. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, is the chairman of the newly formed Committee on Controlled Substances and Synthetic Drugs, which is tasked with recommending policies to combat the sale of synthetic drugs. Simonson's committee will recommend additional remedies for the Legislature to consider next year, Swanson said.

Last Place on Earth owner Jim Carlson said some of his customers misuse the substances they buy from him. But, he said, other people misuse alcohol or become addicted to gambling.