Crackdown on synthetic drug sales passes House

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A bill representing a significant crackdown on synthetic drugs unanimously passed the Minnesota House Wednesday – a proposal which, if approved by the Senate as well, would give a state board the power to aggressively go after sales of such substances.

“We’re not stopping synthetic drugs," said the bill's sponsor Rep. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, according to the Session Daily. "What we’re really focusing in on is two things: stopping the retail sale of synthetic drugs and creating an educational effort.”

The bill gives the Board of Pharmacy the ability to issue cease and desist orders to businesses that sell synthetic drugs containing a banned substance. It also expands the definition of "drug" to mean any compound not approved by the FDA or state of Minnesota that produces effects similar to specifically banned substances.

In essence, as the Star Tribune puts it, the definition now covers any substances that happen to mimic banned drugs, rather than a list of specific compounds and chemicals designated as illegal.

That had previously been a workaround for makers and sellers of synthetic drugs, MPR reported back in 2012. The station spoke with Jim Carlson, owner of the former Duluth head shop Last Place on Earth.

"The problem is [authorities] ban specific chemicals, and the manufacturers know every state and every federal law," Carlson told the station. "And [manufacturers] start switching it up months before they become illegal; they switch ingredients."

Forum News Service says cities across northern Minnesota have tried to control shops that sell synthetic drugs under other names for years. The saga of authorities in Duluth – where Simonson's constituents reside – trying to shut down Carlson and his shop dragged on for years. Carlson was convicted in October of 2013, found guilty on 51 counts.

The Minnesota bill, if approved, would make the state the first in the nation to give a state board the authority to shut down shops selling synthetic drugs, the Star Tribune notes.

“We’ve done some research and this is the first time we’ve been able to find a state that has attempted this,” Simonson tells the paper.

The White House says synthetic drugs pose a "tremendous health risk," describing them as a "rapidly emerging threat." The site says use among youths is particularly high, with one 2012 study showing one in nine American high school seniors admitting to using synthetic cannabinoids in the previous year. That rate was the same as 2011, the White House says.

Synthetic cannabinoids – also known as "synthetic marijuana," "K2" or "spice" – contain dried plant material mixed with chemical additives to induce mind-altering effects, the National Institute on Drug Abuse says. Synthetic cathinones – often sold as "bath salts" or "jewelry cleaner" – contain synthetic chemicals related to an "amphetamine-like stimulant" found naturally in the Khat plant, the institute says.

Both types of drugs are labeled as "not for human consumption" to avoid oversight from regulatory agencies, the White House says. In Minnesota, the House's bill – which passed 130-0 – would make sellers of a synthetic drug liable for any costs and expenses resulting from the sale – such as emergency response or long-term care for the user – if the shop claimed it was a legal substance, the Session Daily says.

“People who sell these drugs know they are selling very dangerous drugs and they know there are going to be consequences,” said Rep. Kathy Lohmer, R-Stillwater.

Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, is the author of the Senate version of the bill. That chamber has received the House's bill and referred it to the Finance Committee.

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