By Tom Olsen, Published August 18 2013
Businesses in Duluth enjoy synthetic drug hiatus
Police say crime has dropped significantly in the Old Downtown area. Neighboring businesses say their sales are up. Emergency room doctors say they’re seeing fewer synthetic drug cases than when the head shop was open.
Rand Sola, who owns Coney Island across the street from Last Place on Earth, said the block has the feel it did five years ago.
“You never realize how abnormal ‘normal’ can feel,” he said.
The counterculture store has been operating for 31 years but has sold synthetics only for the past four years.
Owner Jim Carlson said the shutdown of his business has simply spread out his customers downtown, where they now buy the same products underground.
“Now they’re on every corner, and the cops know it,” he said. “They’ve made it worse because now it’s everywhere.”
Carlson will make a case to have his shop reopened this week. The city’s civil nuisance case is scheduled to begin today, exactly one month after a July 19 court order temporarily closed the business.
The city is seeking to have the shop closed down for one year. But if Carlson prevails, he may be able to reopen his doors and resume sales of his most popular products.
Police report fewer calls
Calls for service to the 100 block of East Superior Street have been cut in half since the Last Place on Earth was closed, according to police statistics.
In the three weeks before the shop was closed, the block generated 98 calls, police said. Comparatively, police received just 48 calls in the first three weeks it was closed.
“It’s a difference that you can obviously see and feel,” Duluth Police Chief Gordon Ramsay said. “It’s more like the way downtown used to be. We’re not seeing synthetic users hanging around, and we’re seeing a return in pedestrian foot traffic to area businesses.”
Business owners have described Last Place customers’ behavior in the area as loitering, panhandling and intimidating.
Ramsay acknowledged that there is still synthetic drug use in the city, but he said the effects of the Last Place on Earth’s closure have been felt throughout Duluth.
During the three weeks before the court order, police reported receiving 200 calls citywide involving synthetics, compared to 71 in the three weeks after.
“You talk about one business that can have an incredibly negative impact on our city – I would almost find it hard to fathom, had I not been involved in all of it,” Ramsay said.
Enjoying return to normal
Next door to the Last Place on Earth, printing and copying business ShelDon is seeing an uptick in walk-in customers for the first time in several years, co-owner Mark Fredrickson said.
“We’re starting to do some walk-in sales again, but it’s not what it used to be,” he said. “We could start seeing some of those sales come back, but probably not until we know the final resolution (of the case).”
Across the street, Duluth Coffee Co. owner Eric Faust said he’s enjoying the calm nature of the block for the first time since he opened his business in October.
“It’s like a breath of fresh air,” he said. “It feels different downtown. It feels like downtown is open for business. These things (synthetics) are a phase; coffee is not.”
At Coney Island, Sola said business never suffered much from the Last Place on Earth. Instead, the “Lasties,” as Sola calls them, were mainly a distraction for his customers.
“We never really had any violent or scary situations,” he said. “It was just the creepy factor.”
Carlson said he sees a negative economic turn on the block. Without 1,000 customers coming to his store every day, nearby businesses are hurting, he said, pointing to the availability of parking spots on the street and the lack of pedestrian traffic.
“When you get 1,000 people down here shopping, they don’t come here just to get one thing,” Carlson said. “They’re shopping at other stores. They’re eating at restaurants. They’re staying at hotels. It’s hurting everybody.”
A few blocks away from the head shop at the CHUM drop-in shelter, night staffer Shawn Carr is breathing easy.
Before the Last Place on Earth was shut down, he said he dealt with shelter residents using synthetics in the bathroom and dormitories on a nightly basis. But in the last month, he said, he’s seen just one case.
“It’s been like a vacation,” Carr said. “We can finally get back to our mission of helping these people, rather than worrying all the time about someone overdosing.”
Carr said the problem has somewhat shifted, however, because he’s seeing some synthetic users switching to alcohol or drugs like heroin.
“Alcohol has made a comeback and we’ve seen some heroin, but it doesn’t compare to synthetics,” Carr said.
St. Luke’s hospital has noticed a similar trend, emergency room physician Chris Delp said. While he still sees patients with medical issues resulting from synthetics, heroin cases are up, he said.
“We have seen a lot of heroin overdoses recently,” Delp said. “But it’s hard to tell at this point if it’s directly related to the availability of synthetics.”
However, the emergency room has been a much calmer place since the Last Place on Earth was shut down, he said.
“For quite a long time, there wasn’t a single shift where I wasn’t affected somehow by synthetic users,” Delp said. “It’s one of those things you think about after the shift. You say, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t see anything synthetic-related today.’ It’s a refreshing thing.”
Carlson said he doesn’t buy the theory that closing down his shop has or ever will stop people from buying and using synthetics. In fact, it’s probably made the situation worse, he said.
During a recent drive through downtown, Carlson said he spotted no fewer than 10 of his former customers selling synthetics on street corners. They’re going to head shops on the Iron Range and in Ashland, Wis., buying in bulk and coming back to sell the drugs for big profits in Duluth, he said.
Carlson said the shutdown of his store has created a situation where sales have moved underground and are unregulated, meaning that buyers can’t be sure what’s in the products they’re buying.
“When you bought from my store, you were always buying the same thing and knew what you were getting,” Carlson said. “Now when people are buying on the street, they don’t know what they’re getting or how dangerous it is.”
None of the Last Place on Earth customers who were interviewed would give their names, but they agreed that synthetics aren’t hard to find.
Getting ready for trial
Although he hasn’t been able to sell anything out of his store for the past month, Carlson said he’s just about as busy today as he was when he was open.
“I pretty much get up in the morning and talk to attorneys,” he said. “Then I spend all afternoon talking to attorneys. Then I talk to attorneys some more.”
Carlson now has seven attorneys working on his legal cases. In addition to this week’s nuisance trial, he’s also facing nine drug charges in St. Louis County Court and 55 charges with his son, girlfriend and a former shop employee in federal court.
The federal case is scheduled to go to trial next month, and Carlson said that is his top priority. This week’s nuisance trial may determine the short-term future of the Last Place on Earth, but Carlson knows next month’s federal drug trial has much bigger implications.
“They want to lock me up and put me away for 900 years,” he said. “That’s the case I’m worried about.”