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Published June 11, 2013, 11:09 AM

Duluth City Council votes to license retailers of synthetic drugs

In its ongoing efforts to combat the sale and use of synthetic drugs, the Duluth City Council passed ordinances Monday night that require retailers of the products to be licensed by the city and that make it illegal for anyone to smoke, ingest, inject or snort any product that’s labeled as being not for human consumption.

By: Peter Passi, Forum News Service, INFORUM

In its ongoing efforts to combat the sale and use of synthetic drugs, the Duluth City Council passed ordinances Monday night that require retailers of the products to be licensed by the city and that make it illegal for anyone to smoke, ingest, inject or snort any product that’s labeled as being not for human consumption. Synthetic drugs typically bear such a warning.

David Ross, president and CEO of the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce, urged passage of the ordinances, saying that his board of directors had unanimously voted in support of the measures so downtown Duluth would not have to endure another summer of unrestricted synthetic drug sales. He said action was needed to restore “comfort and normalcy to the downtown.”

Jim Carlson, the owner of Last Place on Earth, a Duluth head shop that does a brisk business selling synthetic drugs, embraced the concept of licensing sales of the products.

“I feel that by licensing this product, you are admitting the legality that I’ve always stated,” he told the council at an earlier meeting.

City Councilor Linda Krug, who co-sponsored the ordinances, disagreed with Carlson’s characterization.

“We are not condoning the use of synthetic drugs. We are not legalizing synthetic drugs. We are merely regulating synthetic drugs,” she said.

Councilor Sharla Gardner, the other co-sponsor of the ordinances, said federal and state authorities have been unable to effectively regulate the synthetic drug industry because chemists have been able to develop new mind-altering compounds as quickly as others are outlawed.

“I would like to see synthetic drugs made illegal, but until they are, we should use the tools we have available,” she said.

Councilor Jim Stauber recalled an ordinance the council passed in 2010 that attempted to make synthetic marijuana illegal in the city. The city later determined that ordinance was legally unenforceable.

“I think the council made matters worse instead of better,” Stauber said, contending that the action increased the profile of the Last Place on Earth, boosting its sales substantially.

Stauber said he did not want the council to repeat that mistake by making headlines as the first city in the state to license sales of synthetic drugs.

“I think we just continue to make the situation worse and worse and better for Mr. Carlson rather than actually solving anything,” he said, explaining why he would not support the licensing ordinance.

Stauber cast the sole dissenting vote on the council.

The ordinance authorizing police to ticket anyone who consumes synthetic drugs was passed unanimously.

Although Carlson likes the idea of licensing his sales, he has taken exception with several requirements the city plans to impose, including a requirement that the ingredients of all synthetic drugs be clearly identified on product labels and that the substances not be sold to anyone younger than 18. He has questioned why his shop should be more highly regulated than others throughout the state and nation.

Carlson said his shop already has a policy of not selling synthetic drugs to anyone younger than 18, the age at which it is legal to purchase cigarettes in Minnesota.

The ordinance would not allow the city to issue synthetic drug licenses to any business located within 500 feet of a park, school, day care or residential neighborhood. But existing businesses that already carry the products would be allowed to apply for synthetic drug licenses by way of a grandfather clause.

Dr. Nicholas Van Deelen, an emergency room physician at St. Luke’s hospital in Duluth, said people suffering from adverse reactions to powerful synthetic drugs show up in need of medical attention daily. Often they are highly agitated and require physical restraint and sedation. He said about 95 percent of these people lack the resources to pay for the care they receive, which is often extensive and costly.

Van Deelen said the long-term effects of using these drugs also is a frightening unknown at this point, and many of his colleagues are deeply concerned.

“We think this is a public health crisis,” he said.

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